California needs a new long-term plan for public higher education.
In the wake of the passage of Proposition 30 — whose rejection would have triggered a staggering $250 million budget cut to the University of California and a likely 20.3 percent tuition increase — it is easy for officials to avoid making any radical changes to the state universities and colleges. They seem safe.
But, as supporters of Prop. 30 acknowledged during the campaign, the ballot measure is only a stopgap that does not permanently eliminate the threats public education faces. While voters averted a short-term crisis, the proposition’s tax increases are temporary. The UC, CSU and community colleges are still in need of comprehensive solutions to make their structures more sustainable.
UC officials have said that Prop. 30 will give them the flexibility to begin negotiating a multiyear funding plan with Sacramento under which the university would begin to receive gradual increases in state funding. If the university successfully implements that plan, it would help to alleviate certain financial struggles by finally calming students’ constant fears of imminent fee hikes amid a climate of uncertainty around state funds. However, a multiyear funding agreement cannot be the only result of Prop. 30 — the university must take more severe actions to resolve its challenges.
The state’s strong commitment to higher education began in 1959, when education leaders created the California Master Plan for Higher Education, much of which was embedded in the Donahoe Higher Education Act, passed by the state Legislature in 1960. The plan established the framework of the UC, CSU and community college systems we know today. Unfortunately, since the master plan’s inception, California has reneged on several key aspects of its initial vision due to persistently rough political and economic climates in the state. For example, one of the plan’s key components “reaffirmed California’s prior commitment to the principle of tuition-free education to residents of the State,” according to the university. The state has long since abandoned that element.
While volatile tuition levels inhibit the UC and CSU’s ability to remain affordable, another central principle of the master plan — access — is deteriorating. Californians can see evidence of this danger across the state’s community college system, which has turned away half a million students in recent years, according to the Los Angeles Times. The state’s inability to ensure that even community colleges can adequately provide for all students is indicative of a greater need for higher education officials to re-evaluate the master plan and determine whether a new one is needed.
When voters approved Prop. 30, they made it clear that they value investment in education. Now, the university and the state must figure out how they can best deliver on that investment. Though large-scale changes will be difficult to talk about and even harder to implement, it is imperative that university officials discuss them now, when they have some breathing room, rather than in the face of an immediate catastrophe later.
The UC Board of Regents is set to meet next week. The conversation starts there.
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