Time to end the cycle of unpredictable state higher education funding

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Kevin Foote/File

Some things are quite comfortably cyclical. For example, Welcome Week, Caltopia, Calapalooza, Cal-everything, the start of a new year, a new semester, etc. — I like that these events recur.

What is — or should be — unbearably cyclical, however, is the crisis that continues to face higher-education institutions.

This year’s state budget seemed to signal progress toward a new, brighter era for the University of California and its relationship with the state. Signed earlier this summer, the 2014-2015 budget increases funding for the UC by 5 percent compared to last year. An extra $39 million was provided for the Cal Grant program, $107 million to begin implementation of the Middle Class Scholarship Program and, originally, $50 million for deferred maintenance projects if revenues from property taxes were higher than initially projected.

Granted, the latter is now up for debate. Revenues from property taxes were less than anticipated — what else is new? — and, in response, Assembly Democrats have had to create a new bill, SB 872, that would provide the same quantity of funding as originally promised to the UC had property taxes been high enough but by using alternative revenue sources that had significantly exceeded projections.

Yet, even if SB 872 passes, the UC remains crippled by the cuts faced during the aftermath of the 2007 recession.  A recent survey of the UC’s 10 campuses identified more than $166.5 million in urgent needs and billions more for other priority projects, UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein stated in a recent article by the Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, levels of student debt continue to skyrocket, quality professors continue to leave for higher paying positions elsewhere and the university continues to divert attention to private funders.

The problem, however, isn’t whether funding from the likes of SB 872 will be provided. The problem is that this is an old story. As a professor confessed to me earlier this summer, “Education is in a crisis, but it always has been and always will be.”

For years, the state has provided less than what the public university asks for. While additional funding is deeply needed, however, it’s not the solution to the crisis at hand. The crisis of California’s higher-education system does not merely reflect a funding gap — it reflects a faulty funding model. In order to return the university to its post-recession financial health  — which, we must remember, was not all that glorious either — as well as prevent repetitive crises in our education systems, policymakers and university administration must create a more sustainable funding structure that stops rendering students the victims of petty politics and protects the university’s public mission.

Firstly, as long as university funds are categorized as discretionary spending in the state budget — and thus vulnerable to infantile politics, innumerable competing interests in a constrained state budget and unstable tax revenues — the education system will remain in crisis.

Assembly Democrats argued SB 872 is necessary, because the property-tax revenues and Department of Finance’s projections were a “serious letdown,” according to a press release earlier this month. The revenue stream wasn’t the letdown, however: The fact that policymakers continue to make highly needed university funding contingent on volatile factors such as property tax revenue is the letdown.

Not only does this reveal the state’s failure to earnestly prioritize higher education — it creates messes in budget calculations due to mistaken projections, an embarrassing yet perhaps inevitable, recurring problem.

While the state and the university system must work together to find a more stable, secure source of funding, in doing so, it must not sacrifice the university’s public mission — which, unfortunately, seems to be the case at hand.

Over the years, in response to “the new fiscal reality” that the state is an unreliable source of funding, the university has been forced to seek out private funding. This February, the campus’ most recent fundraising initiative, The Campaign for Berkeley, surpassed its goal of raising $3 billion over about nine years, marking it “a historic campaign not just for Berkeley but for all public universities in the United States,” as former chancellor Robert Birgeneau stated.

The importance of such fundraising campaigns must not be undermined. With state funding remaining historically low, the university must continue seeking out private sources of revenue in order to avoid tuition increases.  Yet, students and administrators must not accept this shift with pacificity — we must recognize the danger and limits of privatizing our universities and continue to demand greater state support. With new funding sources, the university will be inevitably pulled by new incentives. The politics of philanthropy can’t be ignored.

Instead of forcing the university to seek out alternative funding sources, the state must claim its responsibility to support its university systems by enacting structural reforms, shifting budget priorities and deciding how to divvy up the general fund among state programs. Creating a program similar to Proposition 98, which marks a mandatory amount of spending (40 percent of the general fund) for K-12 education, could be another way to go about preventing another crisis in the state’s higher-education institutions.

Lastly, we must recognize the that there is a changing national view that higher education is first and foremost a benefit to the individual rather than to the public, which results in education being treated as the responsibility of the individual rather than of the state. Although many a social science report and Cal student could attest to the immense role the university plays in the public, this shift in public opinion can be found in voters’ behavior, public discussion and, of course, public policy.

As director of the campus Center for Studies in Higher Education, C. Judson King, said in an earlier Daily Cal article, “The limits on state funding also reflect an implicit public judgment that public higher education is more of a gain for the individual than for society….What is more and more becoming lost is the recognition that public higher education carries a benefit to society at large.”

The more prevalent individualist perspectives of higher education become in public opinion and policymaking, the more vulnerable the UC, CSU and community-college systems will be to budget cuts — and, most importantly, the more vulnerable students will be burdened to greater levels of debt. While this latter structural block to the university’s ability to rise from the damages faced since the 2007 recession is immensely difficult to address on a large scale — it’s difficult to imagine a policy that changes public opinion — policymakers must recognize the reality of the university’s public benefit and the dangers of neglecting it.

Higher-education finance must be reformed to recognize the university’s public nature and to secure access to a quality education for all for years to come. It’s time education in this state gets out of crisis mode.

Contact Alex Berryhill at [email protected].