“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Those words, spoken by the activist and former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, still ring true today. An investment in education is an investment in our society’s future.
California leaders understood this decades ago when they devised the Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960. Under the leadership of Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, the Master Plan made a promise to Californians: There would be a place in higher education for every qualified high school graduate. But years of economic recession and rising tuition costs have made that promise increasingly out of reach. Rising tuition and fees have made higher education unaffordable for many California families, forcing students to reconsider their future or incur massive debt. Although programs like Cal Grants and the new Middle Class Scholarship are easing the burden of student debt for many, we must make an even greater commitment to our higher education system by allocating more funding to the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) systems. For decades, California has been a national leader in higher education; we shouldn’t leave that legacy behind.
As chair of the Assembly Committee on Higher Education, I have made reinvesting in higher education a priority. I believe it is the responsibility of our state government and higher education institutions to ensure college is both affordable and accessible to all qualified students. There are countless reasons we should invest in higher education. According to the Campaign for College Opportunity (a nonprofit organization with a mission of ensuring all students have access to higher education), California receives a $4.50 return on investment for every $1 it invests in higher education.
Every time I meet a leader from local industries that pay good wages, I ask them why they locate in California. Ninety-five percent of the time they say it’s because they have access to skilled, well-educated employees. Higher education fuels the innovation that drives California’s robust economy, and a well-trained, skilled workforce can meet the growing needs of our state’s evolving industries. Well-educated workers can also expect to bring home larger paychecks, leading to increased state revenues. Additionally, higher education improves quality of life by expanding career opportunities, lifting families out of poverty, and exposing students to new ways of thinking.
Despite the obvious benefits of investing in higher education, the CSU and UC systems experienced deep cuts during the economic recession. Many schools were forced to increase tuition, lay off faculty and staff, cut programs, postpone necessary renovations, and make other painful cost reductions. This means thousands of eligible students were turned away, faced reduced services, or racked up debt. Now, with a recovering economy and passage of Proposition 30, California has the economic wherewithal to reinvest in our public education system. But the recent budget proposal released by Governor Brown falls short. In the governor’s proposed 2014-15 State Budget, the UC and CSU systems are each allocated a 5 percent increase in funding over the previous year, while K-12 and the community college system are each given 10 percent. The UC and CSU systems are asking for a 10 percent increase, consistent with their public education partners. With this funding, the schools can accept more students, hire quality teachers, and invest in new ways to help students graduate on-time and prepare for their careers.
However, this increase in funding will not mean business as usual. Policymakers like me must work with UC and CSU leaders to enact reforms that will reduce administrative costs, ensure students graduate on time, and ease the transfer process. The increase in funding will help the UC and CSU systems meet the needs of the growing number of applicants.
Preserving California’s world-leading higher education system will take smart reforms and sufficient funding. This investment will pay off for generations to come, bringing us closer to the equity revolutionaries like Nelson Mandela envisioned.