Californians, I regret to inform you that you won’t be receiving your diplomas. You flunked higher education.
Another state budget, accompanied by controversy over the University of California, demonstrated once again that we Californians don’t have a clue about what our public universities mean to the state. Because if we did, we wouldn’t make them beg us for the money needed to educate more of our children.
Let’s start this make-up class with history. Most Californians think that we’re all here because of Junípero Serra or the Gold Rush or sunshine. Nope. The biggest force luring people to California over our history has been our abundance of cheap, high-quality public education.
California pioneered such educational access very early. By 1912, Berkeley was already the largest public university in the world. University degrees on the cheap were a great money saver; we stole away smart people from other places and only had to subsidize four years of their education (instead of 13 years in K-12).
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The result of this policy is that for most of the 20th century, Californians weren’t just better looking than other Americans – we were smarter, too, with the highest rate of college graduates.
But then, in the second half of the 20th century, we forgot what we had. The state locked in lower tax rates and higher spending by ballot measure, at the expense of public investment in our world-class university system. The universities made it up by adding tuition and fees.
Today, we Californians still look great, but we’re not as smart. We’ve fallen out of the top 10 of U.S. states by percentage of adults with college degrees. The public universities have held onto their reputations and found ways to serve more students despite relentless cutting.
The 10-campus UC system, a focus of debate this budget season, had a 30 percent decrease in state funding – and a 20 percent reduction in its cost per student – over the past decade.
But try telling that to voters, legislators or the media, who see the universities as greedy and inefficient, even as they’ve educated more people with less state support.
In a reversal of history, UC has come to rely on charging out-of-state students huge tuition bills – $38,000 compared with $14,000 for in-state students. The justification is that such fees subsidize about 9,000 California students whose enrollment is not funded by the state. In one disgraceful legislative hearing this spring, lawmakers actually complained that out-of-state students eligible for financial aid were in fact receiving that aid.
That’s right, America – send us only your rich kids.
Since the state has a demonstrated need for more educated workers, we should be rapidly expanding our universities. But today’s California is so small-minded and budget-obsessed that no one seems inclined to make long-term investments in our well-being. Even the usually reliable Legislative Analyst’s Office has fallen prey to the myopic short-sightedness, declaring that UC doesn’t need to increase its enrollment, even as it receives record numbers of applications.
In response to Sacramento’s cuts and meddling, UC’s tough new President Janet Napolitano confronted state leaders with a choice: Give UC more money or watch UC raise tuition again. Sacramento howled, but Napolitano’s strategy produced more money for UC than anticipated. Still, Napolitano failed to get all the money she’d sought from the Legislature to cover an increase in enrollment.
With immigration flat and the birth rate falling, California will need to attract more people from out of state to study and work here to maintain the state’s vitality. That means making coming to college here cheaper and more attractive.
That’s an argument that Californians don’t yet understand. So maybe we all should enroll in a summer course on higher education and the massive returns we receive from our investment in it.
But who would pay for it?
Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.