California and the Battle for Public Higher Education

California Gov. Jerry Brown holds up a sign in support of Proposition 30 while visiting an elementary school Tuesday, Oct. 23
California Gov. Jerry Brown holds up a sign in support of Proposition 30 while visiting an elementary school Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, in San Diego. The tax plan would boost the state sales tax by a quarter cent for four years and raise income taxes for seven years on those who make more than $250,000 annually. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

I am a proud alumnus of the University of California, Berkeley.

I graduated this past May after receiving a world-class education at a reasonable price. I took classes with exceptional professors and got to know students from all races, socio-economic backgrounds, and places of origin. Today, my fellow graduates are productive Californians working as teachers, bankers, poets, researchers, and engineers -- all enriching this vast state's culture and economy.

But my alma mater, and California's public higher education system in general, is in grave danger. Without a mandate by the people of California to reestablish its state funding, the University of California will be on the threshold of collapse.

Over the last four years, state funding for the UC system has been slashed by $900 million dollars -- or 27 percent of its total budget. This systematic state divestment has already caused fee spikes, classes to be cut, and thousands of workers to be laid off. Students now rely on massive loans or take six-years to complete a four-year degree. Others will never finish.

This November, Californians will have an opportunity to save the UC system and begin to reverse the damage.

Amongst a series of ballot measures this year, Proposition 30 alone will begin to put our university system back on track. Also known as the "School and Local Public Safety Protection Act," Prop 30 can staunch the budgetary bleeding and start the process of saving public higher education. By raising income taxes on the state's wealthiest earners and temporarily increasing the sales tax, Prop 30 will prevent a $6 billion budget cut to higher education set to go into effect this year. If Prop 30 fails, the UC system will face another potential $375 million dollar cut.

As it stands today, the UC system simply cannot suffer yet another budgetary blow like this one. According to UC President Mark Yudof, imminent cuts mean a system-wide $2,400 fee hike, more hiring freezes, more layoffs, and even deeper cuts to academic budgets.

In layman's terms, the system's tragic and quickening death continues.

But why save the UC system? Why not let it collapse?

According to a recent study by the Institute of Societal Issues at UC-Berkeley, funding public higher education is a prudent long-term investment for the state.

For every dollar of budget funding the state puts into the UC system, it receives a net return of $4.50 in tax dollars and savings on social services. That's double the return on Californians who earn a high school diploma. In the aggregate, the state receives $12 billion from UC and CSU graduates each year.

In total, Prop 30 can be a jobs bill, a budget control measure, and an educational panacea.

There is also a moral argument for funding the UC system. The public university is a dying breed across the country, but California is a bellwether. Living under the long shadow of Prop 13, we have the opportunity to shatter the mold and take a stand for excellent and affordable higher education. We can sustain a university system that judges its success based on how fully it benefits the citizens of its state, not on its relative exclusivity.

California can lead the nation on education once again and Prop 30 is its way of signaling that it is serious about building a productive future.

If Prop 30 does not pass, and the $6 billion dollars in cuts are realized, we will have to consider the University of California on the verge of extinction. Its mission to provide an accessible, world-class education to all Californians will be wrest from its grasp by the very people who benefit from it most. But it's in the voters' hands to mandate a stop to the budget hemorrhage and begin to repair one of the pillars of the state's economy.

Prop 30 is a proxy for a much larger debate about the form Americans want their society to take. Do we secure our future and vote for a well-educated, stable society? Or do we batten down the proverbial hatches and face this recession focused on the short-term -- long-run be damned.

Californians need to think carefully about what they want their state's future to look like.