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Invest in California’s future, reinvest in higher education

by Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine

For more than 20 years, public higher education has been neglected in California’s budget process. That has begun to change lately, but legislators should commit to a plan to fully restore per-student state support for public higher education to 2001 levels by 2020. (Nick Lammers // Oakland Tribune file)

In his State of the State address, Gov. Jerry Brown rightly stressed fiscal prudence and the financial uncertainties posed by future recessions, pension liabilities and unpredictable revenue levels. What he didn’t mention was the challenge posed by a growing skills gap that threatens California’s ability to compete and prosper in a changing economy.

As important as a substantial rainy-day fund is, a robust higher education system is critical to maintaining California’s fiscal health and weathering those inevitable economic storms.

For more than two decades, public higher education has been the neglected step-child in California’s budget process. That has begun to change in the last few years, but budgeteers need to step up their game a lot more.

Here’s the math:

  • The California workforce will be short more than 1.1 million college graduates by 2020, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. While 38 percent of jobs in the state will require a bachelor’s degree or more, only 33 percent of working-age adults will have a four-year degree.
  • Higher education funding has been drastically reduced over the past 15 years. General fund support per student dropped 40 percent for the California State University system and more than 50 percent for the University of California.
  • The governor proudly noted that K-12 funding has increased 51 percent – a good thing. But restoration of funding for UC and CSU has been much slower – 4 to 5 percent a year, which is only a bit more than the cost of living.
  • CSU estimates more than 30,000 qualified California students weren’t admitted in 2014 – a number that is surely growing. At the same time, only 58 percent of last year’s UC applicants were admitted. This year, there are a record 206,000 UC applicants – a 6.4 percent increase. UC has plans to admit 6,500 additional Californians, but the state budget is providing less than half the dollars needed for that enrollment increase.

Our public higher education institutions have maintained a remarkable level of quality and productivity through this long period of state fiscal deprivation. One reason is, of course, significant increases in tuition and fees. Although our campuses remain a relative bargain among top-flight universities and colleges, there is no question that students and their families are carrying a much heavier burden these days. The systems have also made progress in reducing costs and achieving efficiencies.

Calls for tuition freezes and exclusion of out-of-state students aren’t the answer. Limiting or eliminating tuition and fee increases is only feasible if the state comes through with adequate funding. Out-of-state students pay more in tuition than we spend on them – effectively subsidizing California students.

Moreover, when the best and the brightest students from across the country and around the world attend our universities, they tend to stay here – boosting our economy, paying taxes and contributing to California’s greatness. The only sensible way to restore needed dollars is to have the state fully restore its commitment to funding UC, CSU and community colleges.

Brown and the Legislature deserve credit for the modest funding increases in the last few budgets. The governor also has instigated useful discussion on how to better utilize technology, improve coordination among the systems and achieve greater productivity. But that is only a start. Sacramento decision-makers should commit to a plan to fully restore per-student state support for public higher education to 2001 levels by 2020.

The purpose of a rainy-day fund is to save for the future. There is no better way to safeguard California’s future than a significant reinvestment in public higher education.

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Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine co-chair the California Coalition for Public Higher Education. Ackerman is a former California state senator and Assemblymember, and Levine is a former U.S. Congressman and state Assemblymember.

This article was originally posted on The Sacramento Bee.