After weathering years of fiscal hardship, the students of California's public colleges and universities--and the families that pay to put them there--are getting a well-deserved break. Gov. Pete Wilson, confident of prospects for economic recovery, announced that he will pump $57 million, part of an unexpected budget surplus of more than $1 billion, into higher education to offset scheduled fee increases next year at the University of California, the California State University system.
This is an instance in which partisan politics has had a productive role in policy. Few question that Wilson, who some suggest is vying for the vice presidential spot on the GOP ticket, was influenced in his decision by a fee-freeze initiative proposed by Democratic Lt. Gov Gray Davis. With his announcement that fees will not increase, Wilson may have undercut support for Davis' initiative and potentially lessened the number of pro-freeze voters (more Democrats than Republicans) who might go to the polls in November. A shrewd political move, in which Wilson, students and parents may benefit.
In recent years, the universities and colleges have played the villain, imposing a painful combination of tuition hikes and budget reductions that resulted in fewer teachers and classes. The University of California has cut its budget by $455 million since 1990, and student fees have soared 130%. CSU slashed its outlays by more than $100 million over the past five years and its fees have doubled since 1990.
With a healthier state economy on the horizon, further withering increases in the near term seem unlikely. That's a break for students and parents. But it doesn't deliver a solution to the more fundamental and vexing question of whether California can deliver on what Wilson referred to as "the promise of affordable, accessible and high-quality college and university education."
If those words sound familiar it's because they are borrowed from the principles articulated in California's Master Plan for Higher Education. That 230-page plan, unveiled in the early 1960s, called for a low-cost education accessible to all academically eligible Californians.
Yet, as numerous studies show, state government's overall commitment to the Master Plan in recent years appears to have neglected the obvious. It did not foresee the historic economic downturn in the state's economy, nor the occupational and immigration pressures that led to greater demands on higher education.
Should trends continue, a 1995 Rand Corp. report shows, higher education is expected to receive 10% less in state funds because political pressure and legal mandates are forcing Sacramento to reserve a huge chunk of money for prisons. Funding for elementary, high school and community colleges will continue to grow as a result of Proposition 98, passed in 1988, which sets aside 40% of the state's General Fund for K-12 schools and community colleges. But state funding for UC and CSU falls in that in the part of the budget that is discretionary, and their funding, unmandated, may be squeezed by other demands.
From the consumers' side, there is the affordability question. A college education now soaks ups 45% of a median family income. In 1980, the figure was only 25%. Overall U.S. borrowing for college costs are expected to double by the end of the century. A freeze on fees, as proposed by Davis, will provide short-term relief to parents and students, but does not address the structural challenges ahead.
Look at just the coming year. The state surplus means that higher education fees can remain stable, and that provides breathing, and thinking, space. The Legislature and governor should use that time to focus on the structural problems of preserving California's honored and vital commitment to higher education.