Latinos’ success in California at stake in UC budget fight

University of California President Janet Napolitano talks with Gov. Jerry Brown during a UC regents meeting in March. The two have been haggling over state budget increases for UC.
University of California President Janet Napolitano talks with Gov. Jerry Brown during a UC regents meeting in March. The two have been haggling over state budget increases for UC. Associated Press

We both graduated from California public universities and now teach at UC Davis.

Our families, from Mexico and Argentina, found our promised land in California and its university during a golden age of Latino education in the state.

That age has passed.

Over the past two decades, the slice of the state budget that supports the University of California has been halved. At the same time, Latinos have become the state’s largest ethnic group, nearly 40 percent of the population.

The Legislature is debating whether to allocate funds to increase the enrollment of California residents at UCs.

In the coming decade, virtually all growth in California high school graduates will come from Latinos, according to the state Department of Finance and UC, which project that the number of white graduates will decline and those from other ethnic groups will remain relatively flat.

Latino demand for spaces at UC campuses is at an all-time high, and will only grow. All nine undergraduate UC campuses registered record numbers of applications for fall 2015 – a total of nearly 194,000 – and more than a third of those applicants were Latinos.

UC is a key engine of social and economic mobility for Latinos, who have been helped by the system’s commitment to access for low-income and first-generation college students. About 38 percent of Latino students are first-generation, and 34 percent come from families earning less than $50,000 a year.

Within five years of getting their degrees, UC’s Pell grant students – 42 percent of all undergraduates – earn more than their parents’ combined earnings. Such figures back up findings by many organizations that investments in education provide unparalleled financial returns.

Yet legislators have not yet learned that lesson. Every day, we see the consequences of not investing in UC: large classes, less teacher contact with students, fewer elective courses, outdated classrooms.

Online education is no replacement for daily contact in small groups. If you want to learn Spanish, or any other subject, you need to be immersed with those who teach and those who are learning. This is what a university is, a place to connect and learn. If we want our students to learn, we need to interact with them. It is as simple as that.

Our future as a state with a Hispanic majority opens many opportunities, while under-investing in public higher education poses many threats. California is already the gateway to Asia.

We should also be the gateway to Central and South America. Our Hispanic population should help build those bridges.

Yet to take advantage of this huge economic opportunity, we will have to provide students with the business, scientific, engineering and other skills.

We can build the leadership and the workforce to take full advantage of this opportunity, but the cornerstone of that will be public higher education, especially the UCs. We need to increase investment to keep the doors open for affordable and excellent public higher education for Latinos and all low-income students.

We have a strong ally in this view. In mid-April, UC President Janet Napolitano told a meeting of Italian American lawyers of her own family’s modest immigrant roots. “There is no greater engine of the American Dream than higher education,” she said.

Let us maintain the promise of the Promised Land.

Francisco X. Alarcón is supervisor of the native Spanish speaker program at UC Davis. Cecilia Colombi is chairwoman of the Spanish and Portuguese department at UC Davis.