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Abandoning California's commitment to education

Budget cuts have left the state's once-proud higher education system in shambles.

December 05, 2009|Tim Rutten

In 1960, a committee of educators working under the leadership of the visionary University of California President Clark Kerr handed Pat Brown, an equally farsighted governor, something he'd long hoped for: a master plan for higher education in California.

Brown and Kerr shared a desire to create a system that would simultaneously encourage academic excellence and equality of opportunity for students of every class and background. They succeeded beyond even their expansive dreams and, in the process, created not simply a network of world-class academic institutions but also a great engine of social progress and prosperity for the California economy.

The plan guaranteed the top 12.5% of the state's high school graduates places in the UC system; the top one-third of graduates were assured places in the state colleges; and free community colleges were open to all. A graduate of the latter's two-year programs was guaranteed admission as a transfer student to a university or state college. Fees and books at those institutions amounted to a few hundred dollars a year.

A special legislative session passed the plan as the Donahoe Higher Education Act and, within short order, slightly more than half of all California high school graduates were attending college -- in an era when less than a third of all Americans went on to higher education. The public universities' burgeoning web of affordable professional schools amplified the system's effect. Its contribution to the decades of unparalleled prosperity that followed can't be calculated.

Of all the damage that has been done in recent years by Sacramento's habitual flight from fiscal responsibility -- particularly during the disastrous Schwarzenegger years -- none has been more injurious or perverse than the budgetary mistreatment of the state's universities and community colleges. Starved for adequate funds, what was once California's greatest guarantor of social mobility based on merit has become, in fact, a force for the growing inequality that threatens this state's future.

Today, just 36.3% of California's high school graduates go on to college, compared with better than 40% nationally. Among the country's 20 largest states, we now rank 18th in the percentage of 12th graders who go directly to college and 17th in the number who ever seek higher education. The well-documented decline of California's primary and secondary schools has played a role in that; only 20 states spend less per pupil than we do, and we rank next to last in student-teacher ratios.

On top of that, the costs of higher education have become too much for many families. Over the last decade, UC fees have increased 300% to $10,302 annually, and a student planning to live on campus now needs $27,502 a year. A California State University student living at home still must be prepared to pony up $4,827 a year. It costs $40,522 to attend UCLA Law School for a year and $41,654 for UC Berkeley's business school.

In an overlooked essay in the New Republic recently, the magazine's senior editor, John B. Judis, noted California's well-known loss over the last decade of more than one-quarter of its manufacturing and mid-level office jobs, formerly crucial rungs on the social mobility ladder, particularly for African Americans and Latinos. He went on, moreover, to point out that those losses masked some disturbing aspects of the state's economic success stories. The state's economy, Judis wrote, "currently boasts some of the country's leading-edge industries, including computer and telecommunication hardware and software, biotechnology, alternative energy, entertainment (one of the country's biggest exports) and aerospace technology. These industries provide high wages and help pay for state government. But except, perhaps, for alternative energy, they're different from the industries that triggered California's earlier booms. They enjoy extremely high rates of productivity, which means they increase their output without creating millions of new jobs."

Is it any wonder, then, that over the last two decades, the annual share of California's total income garnered by the top 1% of the state's earners went from 13.8% to 25.2%? That means the most affluent 20% of our population now has an average yearly income nearly eight times that of the poorest fifth of the state.

So, while budget cuts continue to push advanced education beyond the reach of a growing number of Californians, our public universities and colleges are helping to create an economy that increasingly dooms those without degrees to a kind of perpetual helotry. Inadvertent or not, this is social policy that has moved from mere perversity into outright pornography.

We are, it seems, a state removed from 1960 by more than time.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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