In the next few weeks, letters (and emails) will be arriving at our home informing my daughter, Alexa, of the results of her college applications. As any parent who has gone through the process with their child can attest, it is a mixed blessing. The college visits that we have made together have been wonderful and will provide lifelong memories; the stresses of grades and scores and the application process itself are another matter entirely. And while it was a treat to visit college campuses throughout the state and nation, I could not help but be struck by a growing disparity in investment that became apparent between public and private universities.
It has been over 30 years since I graduated from Stanford and my brother from Cal. Apart from the fact that neither one of us could get into those schools now, I do not remember there being an obvious difference in the facilities at either campus. The dormitories, laboratories, classrooms and new construction seemed roughly equivalent, at least from the point of view of young uninformed students. Certainly, there were profound differences in architecture, but neither one seemed lacking in investment.
On my recent visits throughout California to both public and private universities, I was struck by the phenomenal new construction going on at many of the private schools. New dormitories and residence halls, new dining facilities, state of the art engineering buildings and abundant access to broadband and new technologies were just a sample of what we saw at the private colleges. And while there was certainly evidence of some new construction at the public schools, all too often the classrooms reminded me of those I sat in 30 years ago and that is not meant as a compliment.
I realize, of course, that investment in physical infrastructure is only one metric — and certainly not the most important — when it comes to higher education. But I do know from my service on the Budget Subcommittee on Education in the California State Senate more than a decade ago that the lack of new facilities and a growing backlog of deferred maintenance can be the canary in the coal mine when it reflects a lack of overall investment. Couple this with the reports we heard from many students that they are having trouble getting the classes they need, and alarm bells should begin to go off.
The UC system has long maintained a commitment to providing California’s students with access to a high quality and affordable education. Student populations at the UCs include an extraordinary number of students from disadvantaged, underrepresented, or low-income communities. In fact, more than 90 percent of UC’s undergraduate aid is awarded based on financial need and 42 percent of students come from first-generation families — no small feat for the country’s largest public research university system. State investment right now accounts for only about 10 percent of our UC system’s overall budget. Without more public support our schools will be forced to consider options that betray their founding principles, including an enrollment cap or increasing the number of out-of-state student admissions.
Earlier this year, I was encouraged to see Gov. Jerry Brown work with UC President Janet Napolitano on an agreement that provides additional resources for UC’s budget while maintaining an in-state tuition freeze for an additional two years; the state Legislature also provided a $25 million increase in state funding for UC to enroll an additional 5,000 students. While this is a sign of progress, it is still nowhere near the level of investment that our state will need to preserve access for our students to an affordable college education and thus, a ladder for social mobility and economic opportunity.
The governor’s new budget, if approved, provides $3.41 billion in state funding for the UC system in the next academic year, an increase of 4.7 percent from this year. Thankfully, this is enough to stave off an increase in tuition costs for the year. I hope this will be part of a continuing trend of upward investment in our public universities.
California residents made significant investments in state-funded education at its inception, believing it key to the state’s future prosperity and success. It still is. And a healthy competition between public and private colleges has always spurred both on to greater achievement. These beliefs and practices created the quality higher education systems we have today — at University of California, the Cal State system and community colleges. The growing disparity in investment between the public and private systems, if left unaddressed, spells a very uncertain future for these superb institutions and raises profound challenges to upward mobility for our residents.
US Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, represents California’s 28th Congressional District.