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California's UC System Shows Why Privatizing Public Higher Education Is Not The Solution

I had the unfortunate circumstance of entering college in 2008, the year the U.S. financial crisis began. When I entered as a freshman at the University of California, Davis, my tuition was $9,497. Flash forward four years, and not only has my skull began to crack under the pressure of my growing brain, but I am also paying $15,123 dollars – 60 percent more – for my senior year. Good thing I’m getting out soon, because tuition is only going up.

While tuition is rising all across the nation, the University of California (UC) system serves as a great case study for understanding what is broken about public higher education in the U.S. and the problem with how we are trying to fix it. Tuition increases are not only reflective of states’ budget crises, but a change in the attitude that a good public education should be funded by the state. The recent move toward privatization by using alternative sources to fund public higher education, such as tuition and private endowments, is the wrong step in finding a permanent solution. Instead, we need to guarantee funding from the state through a constitutional amendment that would institutionally prioritize higher education.

In 2009, state and local appropriations nationwide declined an average of 7-8% and tuition was raised an average of 4-5% to buffer the cuts, according to the report Trends in College Spending by the Delta Cost Project. That year was the closest tuition revenue had come to equaling state funding in that decade, and the situation has probably only worsened since 2009. For UC schools, for example, 2011-12 was the first academic year that tuition revenue surpassed state funding.

Such sticker-prices for in-state tuition no longer reflect the average cost to students in public institutions, either. In the search for quick fixes, more schools have turned to out-of-state students and other types of student fees to earn extra revenue. UC is already counting on increased out-of-state enrollment for an added income, with UC Davis considering a proposal to add an additional 5,000 new students to the undergraduate student body, comprised mainly of out of state and international students.

According to the report, the funding patterns that have been forming for the last two decades are characterized by the themes of privatization and polarization. Privatization is not only characterized by the increased dependency on tuition to fund the universities, but also the shift toward private sources. The article “Research and the Bottom Line in Today’s University” highlights some of the problems that arise when universities are forced to rely on private funding.

Such investments, according to the article, could skew research priorities away from serving the public interest to satisfying the interests of university benefactors, or allow sponsors’ agendas to place undue influence on university research. Reliance on such money will also exacerbate an already problematic focus on research faculty who help bring in corporate dollars, further lowering the priority on teaching. The article also warns against the danger of reduced focus on research that results, not in dollars, but in “human understanding, democratic advancement and social justice.”

Attempts to ease tuition increases by expanding student aid, such as UC Berkeley’s initiative to give extra aid to families who earn between $80,000 and $140,000 annually, are also not sustainable solutions. This type of fix ultimately relies on increasing the tuition for students whose families are deemed able to keep up with rising tuition costs to pay for those with middle-incomes, essentially shifting the burden from the taxpayer and state to students from higher-income families.

Instead, the solution needs to come from the state shifting its priorities back to education. Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger highlighted this issue in 2010 when he proposed a constitutional amendment requiring that no less than 10 percent of the state’s general fund would be allotted for higher education and no more than 7 percent would go to the state prison system. At that time, 11 percent of the state budget was going to the prison system while only 7.5 percent was being used for higher education. The proposal was killed before it reached the ballot, and so did the approach of fundamentally shifting the way the state organizes its budget.

Since the California legislature has been ineffective in passing laws that change the state’s priorities on an institutional level, voters need to take it upon themselves to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot requiring a minimum percentage of the state budget be guaranteed to higher education each year. Living in a state that allows direct democracy, Californians have the ability to get an initiative on the ballot without going through Sacramento by collecting 480,000 signatures of registered voters 131 days prior to the state election. With over 200,000 students within the UC system, 400,000 in the California State University system, and more at community colleges, students have a very real potential to get the measure on the ballot and successfully lobby for it to pass.

While students in each state face different struggles in the fight to save public higher education, and different political obstacles to overcome them, it is important that we seek solutions that force states to put priority back on higher education, discouraging privatization at all costs.

Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue

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