Gov Brown Could Take an Important Step Towards Fixing Higher Ed

Remaking the University 2013-03-16

by Stanton A. Glantz and Christopher Newfield   This is an op-ed in which Stan and I practice our diplomacy skills.  The budget point remains utterly crucial, though at the policy level the fundamentals are still screened by deep reserves of wishful thinking. While Gov. Jerry Brown's interest in online education captured the most headlines last month, the principles in his budget proposal for California higher education are more important.
The first principle is that correct public funding is essential to the combination of high quality and full access that made UC such a special exemplar of the potential of public higher ed.  The Governor’s budget says that “the state must begin to reinvest to improve the quality and affordability” of higher ed. 
This is completely right.  A central finding of our detailed study of UC’s budget, known as the "Futures Report"  (2006) was that public funding cannot be replaced by private funds in the form of gifts and research sponsorships.  More important, the Futures report concluded that the only way to replace public funding was with massive tuition hikes that were unacceptably large. 
The second principle Governor Brown (and many leaders in the Legislature) established is that the rapid tuition increases need to stop.   The Governor reiterated this point in his State of the State message when he said, “I will not let the students become the default financiers of our colleges and universities.”
The third and most important principle is to compare growth in higher ed budgets to the rate of state income growth, which the Governor’s budget proposal notes has “averaged slightly less than 4 percent per year.”  We have argued that this benchmark would both control costs and prevent destructive cuts to the state’s capacity to create new knowledge, capable citizens, and a creative workforce on the large scale required.
A problem arises with the Governor’s affirmation of this principle right now, in a deep funding trough created by massive cuts. Our chart shows where UC funding would have been if the state had followed Gov. Brown’s “income principle” for the past decade.
Past policy has been to privatize public university funding by deliberately shifting costs to students. So there is now a huge gap between "normal" general fund growth and UC's actual public funding level. The gap has been only partially filled by a tripling of tuition over this time period, but even these large tuition increases, once enrollment growth and financial aid are deducted, have covered 38 percent of the loss of state funding, according to University estimates.  
Governor Brown notes the resulting damage to both quality and affordability. He cannot, however, fix UC or CSU’s quality while simultaneously capping tuition and keeping state funding at their lowest per-student level in modern history--58 percent below its 2000-01 level (Display 7).
To be consistent, the Governor would need to tie UC funding to income growth not just right now, at a historic low, but over the long term. He would also need to propose a long-term plan to get public funding back on track—precisely so that tuition increases can be halted or, better yet, rolled back, even as quality is improved.
Finally, it has been suggested by University officials and many others that it is too late to fix the gap and that we should give up on fixing public funding.  
This view is factually incorrect. Glantz and Eric Hays have updated their report on how much it would cost to restore UC quality and affordability to 2000-01 levels.  Their answer includes not only the restoration of state funding whose decline is shown above, but also a tuition rollback to 2001 levels ($5278 in current dollars).  The recovery that the Governor's budget envisions, including not simply a tuition freeze but a tuition rollback for California’s entire higher education system (UC, CSU and the community colleges), would cost the median taxpayer $48 per year. 
We assume that the Governor is serious about ”reinvest[ing] to improve the quality and affordability of California’s system of higher education.”  We hope that he will maintain a logical consistency between his call to restrain tuition growth and the public funding recovery that this entails.  He – and all of us – need to study the graph above and move UC (and all of higher ed) back to the blue line, which stands for funding full educational quality for the next generation of students.