The Government Shutdown of California Public Education (Started Decades Ago)
California, one of the world’s wealthiest places, has seen one of the world’s most astonishing declines in college achievement. The state’s continuation rate, the proportion of students starting college who complete it, fell from 66 percentto 44 percent in just eight years (1996–2004). California’s rank among states in investment in higher education declined during the same period,from fifth to forty-seventh,according to Tom Mortenson, a higher educationpolicy analyst. The state has cut its investment in higher education by close to 50 percent since 1980, forcing tuition increases like the 60 percent rise at the University of California from 2004 to 2008, which was followed by a 32 percent rise between 2009 and 2011. Meanwhile, half of California’s students (kindergarten through grade twelve) are now eligible for thefederal school lunch program, up from one-third in 1989. As Mortenson notes, these students will have no personal resources to cover the costs ofattending college, which at UC is nearly $30,000 per year.
Throughout this period, the Democratic opposition came to accept the description of the public infrastructure as a “safety net”—something remedial, for society’s alleged losers. Higher education by its very nature falsified this idea, since it was a public investment that created and constructed new technology and new ideas, new craft knowledge, new andmore effective economic and sociocultural systems. Specialists were well aware that public funding was the only source of support for the early development of scientific and cultural knowledge, for fundamental experimentation, for breakthrough creativity. And yet even progressive politicians seemed unable to learn a basic concept like “market failure” that had been part of economics since the 1950s. They accepted the premise that public outlays could and should be replaced by private funding wherever a higher education manager expressed an eagerness to try.
The university’s senior managers had in practice already given up on restoring public funding, and they spent the rest of the year misdescribing marginal revenue enhancements as significant solutions. The most visible of these was a pilot program in online education, which was dangled before the regents by the regents’ Commission on the Future—and by its strongest proponent, Berkeley School of Law dean ChristopherEdley Jr.—as an access revolution and future revenue stream that would allow the UC system to remain the bedrock of social justice for California’s diverse population. Some campuses began to replace California residentswith out-of-state students because the latter paid much higher tuition. The Berkeley campus did this most aggressively, doubling the out-of-state share of its fall 2010 incoming class to 23 percent and dropping its Latino studentshare by 12 percent.
Leadership stuck with other tried-and-failed solutions. Administratorsproposed increased fundraising, which supports worthy individual projects but rarely if ever supports general operations at public universities. They proposed increased research funding, which the university finally revealed would increase its budgetary shortfall (already estimated at $720million per year on current research levels, or nearly four times greater than the money saved through the salary cuts). All yielded marginal financial improvements: even the 32 percent tuition increase gave a net boostof about 2 percent of UC’s core campus expenditures for a given year. All these solutions had already been tried repeatedly, often annually. All were part of the funding model that had helped produce the crisis. All were dysfunctional without the substantial public funding that had subsidized the model’s private initiatives from the start. All likely suppressed public support for public funding in the very moment in which the university needed that support more than ever.