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Cuts to higher education: The Master Plan turncoats

Op-Ed

Some of the same state legislators who benefited from the higher education system now won't act to keep it whole.

April 17, 2011|By Gene Block

Early this year I was asked, as the chancellor at UCLA, to prepare the campus for nearly $100 million in budget cuts. It was our share of the $500-million reduction proposed for the University of California system in Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal.

And that's the good news.

As we all know, more extreme reductions lie ahead because of the state's budgetary crisis and political stalemate. The governor has attempted to forestall those further reductions by asking voters to approve extensions of several state taxes, taxes that Californians already pay. Thus far, there are not enough legislators to support putting the extensions up for a vote on the June ballot.

That leaves me, along with the chancellors of other UC campuses, staring at a possibility that was unthinkable only a few years ago: the slow dismantling of the greatest university system in the world, one that champions the American dream of a college education. Generations of post-World War II students are the products of this affordable, merit-based system. They've gone on to become entrepreneurs, physicians, engineers, community leaders, scientists and innovators who have helped fuel California's growth.

But all that is about to change as deep cuts in the state budget and steeper costs for a college degree dash the aspirations of many Californians. For those who think this is yet another example of a public official crying wolf, let me assure you that the opportunity for California's less affluent and even middle-class students to attend the University of California is diminishing with each budget cut, and California's present and future are sinking with it.

Ten years ago, students paid about $3,700 to attend UCLA. Next fall it will be $11,600. The governor has predicted that, without passage of the ballot measure, annual UC tuition could rise to $20,000 to $25,000.

If that scenario comes to pass, a year at UCLA, including housing, books and other living costs, could easily exceed $40,000. That is a frightening number for any parent of modest means trying to send their son or daughter to the University of California. For students attempting to save money by attending community college, budget cuts will restrict opportunities for many students to use this pathway.

And what of the legislators who have refused Californians the right to decide whether they want to face such a scenario? Perhaps they will excuse me, but I detect a certain irony in their posture. A majority of them graduated from California's public universities and colleges, and greatly benefited from the high-quality, low-cost education they received.

Overall, two-thirds of the Assembly and Senate members attended a community college, Cal State or UC, many of them two or three of these institutions. These leaders, in other words, built their careers in public service upon the foundation of the state's esteemed Master Plan for Higher Education — now in tatters — that assured an education to every qualified student in California. Of the 42 Republicans in the Legislature — none of whom has yet to provide one of the two GOP votes needed in each chamber to put the tax extension on the ballot — 29 are products of the state's higher education system. They include the Senate and Assembly minority leaders — who attended Los Angeles Valley College and Fresno State, respectively — as well as the vice chairman of the Assembly's Higher Education Committee, who went to UC Irvine.

The list of California leaders who received the benefits of the state's university system extends far beyond the Legislature. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa attended my campus, UCLA, as did congressmen Henry Waxman and Howard Berman. Apple's Steve Wozniak and Google's Eric Schmidt attended UC Berkeley.

What did California get in return? Let's take the example of UCLA: More than three-fourths of its alumni remain in the region after graduation, becoming leaders in every segment of our society. They are key contributors to the area's workforce and economy; they serve our communities and public and private institutions.

Indeed, California's stunning success in creating an economy based on technological innovation was mainly based on the ready availability of higher education in the half a century following World War II. It is no accident that Silicon Valley and the aerospace industry emerged in California and that the lion's share of new technology companies, from Apple to Google to Twitter, located themselves here.

Nor is it an accident that California's Legislature and state government institutions have, by and large, earned reputations as a cut above their peers in other states. Countless young people followed a path that led from a community college or a state university to public service.

The University of California will not disappear, nor will our state universities or community colleges. But, for many young people in the state, the opportunity to attend them may well disappear. What kind of future will 22-year-old UC graduates face if upon graduation they are already saddled with tuition debt amounting to $50,000 or more?

California, and generations of its citizens, thrived in the postwar era on the nexus between inexpensive higher education and a burgeoning economy. It is our generation's responsibility to prove that the California dream need not die with the baby boomers.

Gene Block is chancellor of UCLA.

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