California’s higher education system was once the envy of other states. The research and job training the system produced has fueled our economy over the years.
It allowed both my father (first in his family to go to college) and I to get an affordable, quality education and give back to the state during our careers.
Today, our world-class system is in trouble. The Aug. 17 special election is a defining moment in deciding which path we’ll take in addressing the problem.
The biggest issues facing California’s higher education are clear. Student fees have almost tripled in the last 10 years, seriously threatening access to higher education for California’s middle class. Student loan debt threatens the ability of graduates to take teaching jobs, just as a large group of baby boomer teachers begin to retire.
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The shift to fee increases and budget cuts is happening because the percentage of California’s budget going to CSU and UC universities has been cut in half during the last generation.
Two years ago, an unacceptable milestone was reached when the state spent more on prisons than higher education.
There are no easy choices. Most of the solutions involve money and leadership. Because of the cash-strapped state budget, any solution is very controversial.
Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee has supported more cuts and fee increases and has suggested we cut back on university research — research that is the engine for job creation, particularly for the emerging green economy. Cutting research is not a choice we should make when we’re trying to bring jobs back in California.
It’s clear that when we invest in public edu-cation, it pays for itself over time. When I was an elected community college trustee, we budgeted roughly $7,000 to educate a student for two years to receive an associate of arts degree.
The difference in life-time earning power between a Californian with a high school education and a Californian with a community college degree exceeds $300,000. Meaning the investment in a community college student would be more than paid back over the life of a person’s career.
We can’t talk about fixing higher education and our economy without talking about fixing our dysfunctional state budget process.
First, we should not allow a state ballot measure to spend money unless it brings in money for that new expenditure. When voters adopted the “three strikes” measure in the early 1990s, it led to a mandated tripling of the state prison budget — funded by cutting higher education.
Second, financial aid through the Cal Grant program should be changed to accommodate a sliding scale for eligibility that includes (not excludes) California’s middle class. A four-year higher education can now exceed $100,000.
Third, we as Californians must more clearly make the connection between our investment in our higher education systems and the vital roles they play in California’s economy. California voters approved a bond for higher education at the height of the Great Depression because they knew what the university meant to the state economy.
California is one of the world’s largest economies because of the investment made by a previous generation. The investment leads to more productive families and a booming economy.
We cannot compete in a global economy without recommitting to our investment.
Many residents of the 15th senate district study and work at one of three California State Universities, at a campus of the University of California and at many community colleges. Higher education is a key issue in this special election and the stakes are especially high in this senate district. To learn more about John Laird’s views, go to www.lairdforsenate.com.