Students in California March Today, I Stand with Them

You can call the draconian increases in tuition happening to California's students taxes or fees. Whatever they are, they are bad economics. Our students are right to be angry, and I stand with them.
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Students at public universities in California are planning a series of demonstrations across the state protesting tuition hikes today. While a few isolated incidents in recent weeks have provided fodder for some in the media to dismiss their concerns, the students' cause is incredibly important. If we continue to yearly raise tuition in California far beyond inflation, we threaten to derail all that has enabled my home state to prosper in decades past.

It is no accident that the Golden State's Golden Age of economic innovation coincided with the establishment of and continued investment in the best public university system in the world. Fifty years ago, forward-thinking policymakers declared that California would be a state where higher education was the birthright of every qualified resident. Since then, we've become the world's great innovator in computers, biotechnology, space exploration, and clean technology.

Unfortunately, the vision that made California one of the largest and most diverse economies on the planet has fallen to the wayside in recent years, as Governor Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers have decided that it's politically easier to balance state budgets on the backs of students.

The result? Student fees have more than doubled at the University of California and California State University systems over the past decade, and enrollment was reduced by more than 45,000 in the past two years. When you price students out of a college education, you don't just harm the individual. You deny the state the future teachers, nurses, and engineers necessary to propel our economy forward.

According to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, if California fails to significantly boost its college enrollment rates soon, we will have one million fewer college graduates than required to keep pace with the growth of our economy by 2025.

"California faces a skills gap," PPIC's Hans Johnson explains. "There will not be enough young adults with a college education to meet the increase in demand for highly educated workers after the baby boomers retire."

Other studies show that for every dollar the state invests in UC and CSU, it gets back $5.67 and $4.41 respectively in long term economic output. Taking a long view, higher education in California pays for itself and then some, meaning every qualified student we force away from a higher education is a dent in California's productivity and output. Taxing students is simply bad fiscal policy. Luckily, there's a better way.

California can maintain its commitment to higher education without taking a penny more away from students or the general population. California is the only oil-producing state in the nation without an oil severance tax. When the building blocks of our economic development are in jeopardy, why should we let the oil companies take California's oil for free?

The University of Texas has been endowed by an oil severance tax since the 1800s, and in 2007, then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin instituted a 25 percent oil severance tax in her home state. If it works for Texas and Alaska, why shouldn't California consider it?

In January, the California Assembly approved AB 656, a bill by Assemblymember Alberto Torrico (D-Fremont, CA) that would follow the Texas model by taxing oil production in California to help fund higher education. The 9.9 percent oil severance tax created in the bill would generate nearly $2 billion for UC, CSU, and California's community colleges, helping to bring enrollment closer to the state's needs and helping to reduce the burden imposed on students struggling to stay afloat.

This week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the California State University system. Since 1960, it has conferred 2.5 million degrees and helped create a broad swath of Californians prepared to contribute to California's economic development. For most of my lifetime, California's system of higher education has been the envy of the world, and we have reason to celebrate our past success.

Yet the history of human civilization is replete with examples of great societies that fell into decline when they no longer prioritized education. What will happen to California if we continue to systematically defund higher education at the expense of our future workforce?

You can call the draconian increases in tuition happening to California's students taxes or fees. Whatever they are, they are bad economics. Our students are right to be angry, and for the future of California, I stand with them.

Congressman John Garamendi (D-Walnut Creek) represents California's 10th Congressional District. As California's Lieutenant Governor from 2007 to 2009, he served as a University of California regent and California State University trustee.

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