Public higher education needs a federal partner
Chancellor Blumenthal authored the following opinion piece, which appeared originally in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 1, 2012.
China is opening new universities so quickly that administrators can't keep up. When I noted the cost during a recent visit, my host said simply: "Money is not an issue." If only we could say the same in this country.
Like many nations, China's financial commitment to higher education is coming from the central government. In the United States, our public colleges and universities are receiving less and less government funding, which is jeopardizing quality and causing tuition to soar beyond the reach of many families. With states unable to provide adequate support, it's time for our federal government to play a much larger role.
Public universities educate about 70 percent of the college students in this country, offering social mobility to students regardless of the wealth of their families. Public universities prepare the next generation, transmit core values and awaken self-knowledge. They generate discoveries that change our lives. Just ask anyone who has had an MRI or used the nicotine patch.
All of this needs to be protected. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening as states slash funding: Here in California, the state's per-student contribution to the cost of a UC education has plummeted 60 percent in two decades.
America's global ranking in the number of college degrees earned by young adults has dropped from first to 16th. We cannot afford to be indifferent to that decline. We must learn from our global neighbors and expand the role of the federal government in higher education. Today, that role is limited to three areas: The feds administer Pell grants for needy students, administer student loans and fund research.
That support is vital, but it is not enough. It's time to recognize the essential value of our public universities and invest appropriately - just as the government stepped up to save the U.S. auto industry. We must not value blue-collar jobs over college; both are vital paths forward for Americans and America.
We need a new model, just as we did when President Abraham Lincoln signed the visionary Morrill Act that established our public universities. I would remind skeptics that Lincoln acted boldly at a dire moment in our country's history, when it was uncertain whether the Union would even survive.
Today, only the federal government has the capacity to provide an infusion of stable, reliable funding to mitigate the withdrawal of state support. I acknowledge some benefit of academia's recent belt-tightening even as I assert that support for public higher education should be as integral as defense spending.
I can't ask for action from Washington without challenging my colleagues in public higher education: We must be prepared to accept new support with conditions once considered unthinkable. I propose the following:
• Public universities must make rigorous commitments regarding retention and graduation rates.
• We must facilitate the transfer of community college graduates and guarantee admission into the majors of their choice.
• We must embrace the benefits of online education.
• We must improve coordination with other institutions and among sister campuses. In astronomy, researchers from around the globe share access to telescopes. That model should be extended to sharing talent so students can attend a virtual lecture - or take an entire course - from a renowned professor on another campus.
We cannot afford to let our public universities languish as China, India and European countries invest lavishly in theirs. We need Washington to step up. No less than our prosperity and national security are at stake.