The California System’s Breakdown

According to an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, it’s time for some big changes at the University of California system. It’s a little unclear what those big changes are, however. Everyone seems to know something’s wrong in California. No one seems to know what to do. But as By John Aubrey Douglass writes in the Times:

For most of the 20th century, California led the nation — and the world — in the number of high school graduates who went on to college and earned degrees. Its famed public higher education system profoundly shaped the aspirations of the state’s citizens and, ultimately, their views on what it meant to be a Californian. That system also attracted talent from throughout the nation and the world, and it helped build and sustain an entrepreneurial spirit that shaped new sectors of the state’s economy — from microchips to biotechnology.

The next chapter may be much less positive. The danger signs are numerous: falling public funding on a per-student basis, unprecedented limits on new enrollments, cuts in faculty positions and relatively low degree-production rates compared with economic competitors in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world. Whereas California was always among the top states in degree-completion rates, it now ranks among the bottom 10.

This, of course, is pretty well established. But Douglass has an idea. After discussing adding greater capacity to the community college system he comes up with the big idea:

The state is already slouching toward a system that progressively charges wealthy students and international students more in order to subsidize low- and middle-income students. It is time to confront the prospect of a permanent shortfall in public funding, formalize this tuition and fee system (even at the community college level) and figure out how it might best work to increase the educational attainment of Californians. A companion solution, one found in other parts of the world, is to more aggressively attract international students to generate income for higher education, lower costs for native Californians and at the same time bring top talent to the state.

It seems risky, and a little cynical, to try and fund the whole university system by attracting more foreigners to study. In the first place, it’s going to have to be really good to appeal to foreign students, who can mostly attend college for free in their own countries.

Furthermore, the more students California attracts from outside, the fewer actual Californians can study there. Also why is it a good idea to fund a state university with money from foreign students? The system exists to educate state residents at low cost. Why shouldn’t all the state residents pay for this?

“It is time to confront the prospect of a permanent shortfall in public funding, formalize this tuition and fee system.” Maybe this isn’t a system worth formalizing; maybe it’s a system to destroy.

There is a shortfall in public funding because the state isn’t willing to support its higher education system. The state is suffering because of it. Let’s stop pretending this is some complicated problem to fix. The state used to have a great system. California decided to go with a reduced tax system and forced students to pay more for education. This experiment has failed.

California offers one of those rare, perfect, examples of what happens when a government stops using taxes to fund public services and instead forces citizens to buy public services themselves. Guess what? The delivery of those services gets worse and more expensive.

This system just isn’t working. But there’s no need for some complicated solution here involving tricking foreign students into paying for someone else’s poorly funded public system. The solution might be politically intricate, but it’s fiscally simple; if California wants quality state colleges, California has to pay for them.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer