As Goes California…

Given that the United States prides itself on having the greatest higher education system in the world, and given that California’s state school system is the biggest and best in the country, calling that state’s budget catastrophe “worrisome” would be an understatement.

Things are so bad that The New York Times‘ Bob Herbert wants us to sit up and take note of what’s happening at U.C. Berkeley:

Berkeley is caught in a full-blown budget crisis with nothing much in the way of upside in sight. The school is trying to cope with what the chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, described as a “severe and rapid loss in funding” from the state, which has shortchanged Berkeley’s budget nearly $150 million this year, and cut more than $800 million from the higher education system as a whole.

This is like waving goodbye to the futures of untold numbers of students. Chancellor Birgeneau denounced the state’s action as “a completely irresponsible disinvestment in the future of its public universities.”

(The chancellor was being kind. Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes watching the chaos of California politicians trying to deal with fiscal and budgetary matters would consider “completely irresponsible” to be the mildest of possible characterizations.)

He also gets at what makes Berkeley such a uniquely great school:

Something wonderful is going on when a school that is ranked among those at the very top in the nation and the world is also a school in which more than a third of the 25,000 undergraduates qualify for federal Pell grants, which means their family incomes are less than $45,000 a year. More than 4,000 students at Berkeley are from families where the annual income is $20,000 or less.

I’m sure some social scientist has already done this, but I’d be interested to see numbers showing the economic ripple effect of when just one student has to drop out of a school like Berkeley because of increased costs or decreased student aid.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.