Where California’s Money Has Gone

by zunguzungu

Since 2001, this has happened to the largest institution of higher learning in the country, the California State University’s 22 campus system, which serves 400,000 students:

A student who is starting his or her degree at CSU right now can look forward to leaving college with at least an extra 20 grand in debt, compared to a student who had the foresight to start college ten years ago.

A small point about how we got here. It’s easy to blame California’s Proposition 13 for this mess, and certainly, parts of Proposition 13 are astonishingly atrocious policy. But Prop 13 cannot explain why, since 1976, the state of California has cut the percentage of the total revenue that it invests in its higher educational system, why that percentage has gone from a triumphant 18% all the way down to a measly 11%. You can’t blame only Prop 13 for this: because the percentage spent on higher education has decreased — independent of the state’s total revenue — reductions in the total size of the pie cannot explain why higher ed’s proportionate slice has gotten so much smaller. It can’t explain why California invested only $7.71 per $1000 of state personal income in 2008, about 40% below the $12.86 (per $1000)  which was invested in higher education in 1980.

I found these numbers to be slightly suggestive, though: in exactly the same (1976-2011) time period as 7.5% of the state’s budget was removed from the column devoted to higher education, almost precisely 7.5% was added to a different column, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. The story is more complicated than that, I‘m sure, and I’d love it if anyone out there could educate me further; I note, for example, that two of those percentage points got shaved away right after Prop 13, when funding for K-12 jumped enormously, and I presume that’s the state kicking in to make up for the property tax revenues that Prop 13 stripped from the local level.

But other than that, only one part of the budget has experienced any significant growth at all in the last 30 years, and that has been a doozy: from accounting for a bit more that 3% of the budget in 1976, Corrections now accounts for nearly 11%. California used to spend about six times as much on higher education as on corrections, and now it spends roughly the same amount for both. In short, I don’t know how you can read this chart and come away with any other explanation than that we’re gutting our universities to pay for prisons. And that trend is continuing.