A Promise for Education

The future of democracy is predicated upon world-class education. Without it, thoughtful learning will be replaced by a mindless failure to sustain the vital center, and a failure to understand the reality of our increasingly complex world. Without it, cable news slugfests become our primary sources of education.

With increasing national debt, gridlock on Capitol Hill and rising tuition costs, there are profound concerns about where educational funding will come from; how we remain competitive; how we will create future leaders; and how young people who cannot afford an education will have access to one.

So a year ago I found myself sitting in the office of University of California Board of Regents Chair and former Paramount CEO, Sherry Lansing, along with Matt Jacobson from Facebook, contemplating this very issue. We were thinking about how we might harness the power of Facebook to unleash new models for creating scholarships and grants. Specifically, we were trying to solve challenges facing UC, which endured nearly $1 billion in state funding cuts during the recession.

That's when Promise for Education was born.

The idea was simple - alumni, students, Californians and anyone passionate about education would make a promise and rally their social networks to contribute money towards their fundraising goal. All of the money raised in aggregate would go towards funding statewide University of California scholarships for students in need.

And the need has never been greater.

Last year, even though UC gave out more than $1.5 billion in grants and scholarships, students still had to contribute over $1 billion to their education. And for the first time, students now contribute more to the cost of their education through tuition than does the state. We talk about regaining our competitiveness, the flattening of the world, the need for a knowledge economy, yet we continue to cut our investments in the colleges and universities that fuel research and cultural breakthroughs and empower the next generation of leaders.

This paradigm shift is deeply concerning because in a democracy, we cannot afford to privatize education. Increasing privatization risks increasing inequality between the haves and have-nots. It risks a lessening sense that there's a "we" to which we can all belong; a lessening hopefulness about the future of our great society. We have to remember that the future lies with our young people. Because if they lose hope, if they feel 'we don't have their backs,' the great shining light that this country has represented will go dim.

So we embarked on a mission to make the University of California the first major public university to attempt a large-scale crowd funding initiative in support of scholarships. And after a year, along with the buy-in and support of university officials, faculty and student groups, we made it happen. It was emboldening that we would be giving young people, who might not otherwise have it, the chance to change our future.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the University of California Regents meeting for the official launch of Promise for Education along with California Governor Jerry Brown and Sherry Lansing. The program launched and within two days has generated over $800,000 so far from individuals, Regents, and partners. It shows the power of a simple idea combined with passion and perseverance.

But this is just the beginning. Every young person deserves access to an affordable world-class education. And maybe the task of underwriting it needs to be put in the hands of the people. There has never been a time where technology, media and concern for the greater good have come together in such a powerful union. It is our moral responsibility to make sure we take advantage of this wonderful opportunity. Perhaps that will mean taking this model to schools across the country and empowering each American to contribute in their own meaningful way.

Because, as the former president of another great university institution, Derek Bok, said: "if you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

Please visit PromiseForEducation.org to participate.