Shawn Hubler

Opinion: Why we fund public colleges

Commencement season is always happy, and few commencements are happier than the one I attended with friends last week.

A tutoring program in Orange County was graduating more than 100 working-class teenagers it had helped to get into college. Most of the kids were the first in their families with a shot at higher education.

The ceremony was at the Disneyland Hotel, underwritten by a rich man who, with a local judge, has run the program for years as a sort of personal mission; in the women’s bathroom, a wide-eyed teenager teetering on high heels confessed that, though she lives minutes away, she’d never been inside the world-famous resort.

As the kids marched to the podium, “Pomp and Circumstance” looping in the background, their parents – nannies and gardeners, housekeepers and immigrant laborers – brushed back tears and applauded as the catering staff congratulated them in Spanish. Despite the particulars, it was not an uncommon scene. If this state is a nation unto itself, it’s an immigrant nation, and for all our complaining, many among us like to give promising newcomers a hand.

What was striking, though, was the route to success the teens kept naming as each announced where they’d be starting school in September: UC Riverside. UC Berkeley. Cal State Channel Islands. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Irvine Valley College. San Jose State. Sacramento State. UC Santa Barbara.

Saddleback College. Cal State Los Angeles. UC San Diego. State school after state school, University of California after California State University after community college.

“As a child, I didn’t know what education would look like,” a peach-fuzzed Santa Ana teen named Yerik Macias told the assemblage. The son of a Mexican cleaning woman, Macias was the recipient of a full scholarship from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He said he plans to major in aerospace engineering at his dream school: UCLA.

Here at the Capitol, in the thick of the blood sport that is the annual budget negotiation, it’s easy to forget how much public funding for higher education matters, and to whom. Next to other imperatives of civil society, from prisons to potholes, the teeming community colleges and the hardworking Cal States and the venerable UC system can come off to state lawmakers as three supplicants among many, three line items, three extended palms.

We don’t like to, but observers depersonalize their entreaties. Individual teens with individual dreams become “enrollment.” Individual dollars, scraped together by thousands of individual families, become “tuition and fees.” Numbers beget numbers until they obscure the humans behind them.

But in communities from San Diego to Sacramento, California’s state-funded schools are, for millions of kids, the one door left to a life that might be better than their parents’. We lose sight of how widely that still counts, and how desperately.

Before Saturday night, I, too, was thinking of higher education “winners” and “losers.” Would the Cal States get shortchanged as usual? Would the community colleges get more love than the UC system? Would UC President Janet Napolitano prevail over the penny-wise mojo of Gov. Jerry Brown?

Those teens put a face to the issue, and that face was so hopeful. On Saturday night, as each thanked their tutors, the rich man and the judge, and held up sweatshirts of one California alma mater-to-be after another, they made me wonder about better, bigger questions:

How can we do right by the job training juggernaut that is the Cal State system? What will it take to un-stop the community college bottlenecks that thwart so many students? Who are lawmakers really punishing when they keep UC in-state enrollment down?

It was a long night. It takes a while for more than 100 kids to step individually into a spotlight and hoist an individual sweatshirt (Cal State Chico, San Jose State, Pasadena City College, UC Merced … ) But you learn things, watching the future march by, one name at a time, so happy.

We can do better. Since it’s commencement season, let’s commence.