Public higher education in California 1965-2015: How times have changed
Chancellor Blumenthal wrote the following opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle; it originally appeared on March 29, 2015.As Gov. Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano spar over the future of the University of California, my question is this: Are we content to offer today’s students, who are more racially and socioeconomically diverse than ever, less than their predecessors received?
Today’s UC system undergraduate population looks like this:
• 40 percent come from families in which neither parent earned a four-year college degree.
• 30 percent transferred from a California community college.
• 42 percent receive federal aid for low-income students — compared with only 15 percent at Ivy League universities.
Public higher education is a transformational force, a major lever that opens the doors of opportunity. Fifty years ago, California’s investment in public higher education reached its apex as three new UC campuses were coming online in Santa Cruz, Irvine and San Diego. UC tuition was virtually nil, and the gates of social mobility were open to all.
How times have changed.
Students protesting Napolitano’s proposed 5 percent tuition increase call for “free education.” A high-quality university education has never been free; somebody has to foot the bill. What has changed since 1965 is the level of public support for higher education in California. Indeed, correcting for inflation, if the state's per-student contribution to UC today matched 1965 levels, students would be paying no tuition.
Instead, resident tuition has topped $12,000 a year, and the governor’s proposed budget is likely to drive that number higher. Ironically, it was Gov. Ronald Reagan who first sounded the drumbeat of anti-UC rhetoric. He campaigned on a pledge to “clean up the mess at (UC) Berkeley” and, once elected, called for an end to free tuition, declaring that the state “should not subsidize intellectual curiosity.”
Voters bought the notion that the state could not afford the university and that students should bear the costs themselves. And here we are today: Students and their families contribute more to the funding of this public university than does the state.
Students aren’t the only ones paying for the erosion of public support, however.
California’s unprecedented investment 50 years ago put elite, private East Coast universities on notice, tilting the balance of excellence toward the West Coast, because UC offered quality, as well as access to talented students from all backgrounds. It did more than transform the landscape of higher education; it shifted the balance of power in the country.
UC generates more patents than any other university in the nation. It is an incubator of discovery and innovation. Fifteen years ago, researchers on my own campus were the first to assemble a draft of the complete human genome — and they promptly posted it on the web where it would be available to everyone, forever, for free. Today, the UC Santa Cruz Genome Browser is the gateway for genomics researchers around the globe.
These audacious contributions — these products of “intellectual curiosity” — are differentiators for our state. They speak to the vision Californians embraced 50 years ago, when the Master Plan for Higher Education called for tuition-free opportunities at the state’s community colleges and public universities.
The mission of public higher education is fundamental to our democracy and to our economic vitality. Let’s bring back the sense of collective responsibility for the university and its students — a public investment as essential as our hospitals, K-12 schools and highways.
UC alumni must speak up, voice their support for the university, and call on all Californians to follow their lead. We must not turn our back on today’s — and tomorrow’s — increasingly diverse student population.