We must invest in our public universities

Chancellor Blumenthal authored the following opinion piece, which appeared originally in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, September 16, 2012.

Our public universities are in trouble. Nationwide, they produce 70 percent of our college graduates. Yet, from coast to coast, unrelenting state budget cuts threaten the quality of our leading institutions, even as they force students and families to dig deeper and borrow more to pay the tuition.

As we begin another academic year, our top priority must be to develop a stable, long-term funding model for public higher education. We need a path forward that preserves excellence, protects access and affordability and puts the United States on track to regain our standing as having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Our decline from first to 16th place since the 1980s demands action.

In today’s global economy, a college education isn’t a privilege, it’s a prerequisite. The lifetime earnings of college grads are higher, and they pay higher taxes as a consequence. But the payoff is more than personal. To stay competitive, the United States needs a well-educated workforce with the knowledge, technical skills, and ability to think critically that our system of higher education encourages. And to succeed, this workforce must include graduates whose families could not afford quality higher education.

In California, our elected officials say they can’t fund community colleges and state universities the way they did in the past. So let’s find a new way. Let's consider an array of options and pursue the best. Our public discussion should focus on three areas: stable funding, private-sector partnerships and online education.

Stable funding

One proposal seeks to raise $3 billion from federal, state and private partners to permanently endow faculty positions at public research universities across the country. Initially proposed by UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, this idea has gained support from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. Here in California, some have proposed designating a new source of revenue to support public higher education, perhaps a tax on every barrel of oil produced in the state.

Also, a group of former UC chancellors has proposed setting tuition at a level that would preserve educational quality — about $24,000 per year — and shifting all university funding from the state to student financial aid. Then, when state subsidies for UC go up, tuition would go down. Elected officials would have the final say, but tight state budgets wouldn’t erode the university, and students’ access, regardless of income, would be assured.

Private-sector partnerships

Should employers, the key beneficiaries of a well-educated workforce, help preserve the institutions that produce the talent on which they rely? The National Research Council says yes, calling for a closer relationship between business and higher education to address workforce needs, facilitate research and bring new ideas to the marketplace.

More research partnerships between universities and business could increase productivity and boost the bottom line. Companies already are welcoming this help, as many have scaled down their in-house research-and-development operations in recent decades. Companies could offer robust internship programs for students, creating an inside track to assess new talent before making hiring decisions.

At the same time, public universities need to be more nimble and willing to work with corporate partners, confident that mutually beneficial partnerships won’t compromise their autonomy or integrity.

Online education

Online delivery of courses could reduce classroom overcrowding and significantly increase the number of students served. It would expand the reach of instructors, allowing them to serve students on other campuses and around the world. It could preserve the wisdom of faculty on the brink of retirement or reservoirs of knowledge such as UC Santa Cruz historian Peter Kenez, who co-teaches a Holocaust studies from the perspective of a survivor.

But would students benefit, beyond having an alternative to the dreaded 8 a.m. class? We don’t know yet. Studies indicate that online courses might be an effective way to teach calculus, but what about history, politics or philosophy, where learning benefits from the lively exchange of ideas and opinions? Would our brightest students be inspired by an online course? Would first-generation college students thrive in the online environment? Could online delivery of lectures complement the classroom experience by freeing up in-class time for more in-depth discussion and problem solving?

The cost implications of online delivery remain unknown, but cost is only one factor: We need to know how it shapes the student experience. MIT, Harvard and Stanford universities have launched major initiatives to develop online education. But it’s too early to tout technology as the savior of higher education.

What can’t wait is a more engaged public conversation about the future of public higher education.

For California voters, the first opportunity comes in November. Proposition 30 is Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to raise sales and personal income tax rates to generate new money for the state. Fully 89 percent of the funds raised would go to K-12 schools; 11 percent would go to community colleges. Proposition 30 has important implications for UC and the California State University system, too. I encourage you to make an informed decision. The fate of our universities and our economic future is in our collective hands.

New ideas to keep a college education within reach

What if:

  • College students didn’t pay a dime in tuition until after graduation, when they would pay for their education through a surcharge on their income tax. A federally administered program could follow graduates as they move around, and a "sliding-scale" model would allow students to pay a fair proportion of their earnings, encouraging graduates to engage in public service rather than pursue only high-salary careers.
  • There were tuition guarantees so that incoming freshmen knew the full cost of their education and signed a contract to pay for it. For this to happen, states would need to provide stable funding to public universities.
  • The federal government expanded tax credits for families of college students or extended the Pell Grant program to middle-income students.
  • The state government, as proposed by Assembly Speaker John Perez, generated $1 billion a year in tax revenues by closing a corporate tax loophole and designated the funds for middle-class tuition relief.