Golis: Pay it forward by standing up for higher education

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Accidental band members, we’re trailing the tuba section as the University of California Marching Band wends its way from Memorial Stadium to the center of the Berkeley campus. It’s a happy throng — celebrating a beautiful day, a Cal victory and people’s pride in this place.

People who went to school here love Cal. Our group includes a Cal grad who turned 96 this month and who has been attending football games at Memorial Stadium since he was 8 years old.

His chemistry professor back in the day was a guy named Glenn Seaborg, who would later win the Nobel Prize in chemistry, serve as science adviser to 10 presidents, contribute to arms control agreements and share credit for discovering 10 elements on the periodic table (including the element known as seaborgium). Such is the legacy of one of the great public universities in the world.

The University of California at Berkeley — the Bears — celebrates its 150th birthday this year.

Its younger sibling, Santa Rosa Junior College — the Bear Cubs, of course — marks its 100th anniversary.

Down the road, Sonoma State University is a mere 58 years old, but U.S. News and World Report just listed it among the best public colleges in the West.

Here’s a question: How many of your friends and acquaintances attended one (or more) of these schools? It’s a difficult question to answer because so many people’s lives have been made better by what we too often take for granted — California’s longstanding commitment to the best system of public colleges and universities in the world.

More than any other factor, this system of higher education has been the engine that powered California’s emergence as the fifth largest economy on earth.

Unfortunately, our commitment isn’t what it used to be. Generations who enjoyed what came close to a free college education were not always willing to pay it forward to the generations that came after them.

Today, about 12 percent of the state general fund goes to higher education. Forty years ago, it was 18 percent. Tuition at UC and CSU campuses has tripled in the past 20 years.

A new report last week confirmed that reductions in state funding for higher education have led to higher tuition, reduced access, declining faculty pay and higher student-to-faculty ratios.

“Today, yearly tuition and fees for in-state students total about $14,000 at the University of California (UC) and $7,000 at California State University (CSU),” according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

These numbers may come as a surprise to Californians who paid tuition and fees that were the functional equivalent of zero.

No one argues that California can return to the days of free tuition. The PPIC study says it would cost $4 billion a year to do so. That opportunity has come and gone.

Still, the reasons to support higher education remain unchanged. In more ways than we can count, these institutions dominate the economic, social and cultural landscape of this state.

Last year, PPIC researchers warned: “A skilled workforce is key to a thriving California economy. Unfortunately, California’s higher education system is not keeping up with the economy’s changing needs. If current trends continue, California will face a large skills gap by 2030 — it will be 1.1 million workers with bachelor’s degrees short of economic demand.”

The research paper was headlined: “Will California run out of college graduates?”

Once upon a time, California developed what was called the Master Plan for Higher Education. It testified to one generation’s commitment to posterity.

Keep in mind: We’re talking about 10 UC campuses (including five medical schools), 23 CSU campuses and 115 community colleges. Taken together, more than 2.8 million people now attend public colleges and universities in California.

Unfortunately, as has happened in too many instances, governors and state lawmakers came to view higher education through a lens that didn’t see far into the future. For some, higher education became a convenient whipping boy to advance a short-term political strategy. With each economic downturn, the state would reduce public support — necessitating an increase in the cost for students and their families.

Some of the effects have been mitigated, the report says, by programs to provide additional support for students who can least afford the price of admission.

It remains, however, that students are paying a lot more.

The Public Policy Institute recommends a series of measures, including a plan which would avoid large and unexpected tuition hikes in the future and which would account for all the costs of education.

Every available measure confirms that an education has never been more important than during this time of rapid technological and social change. Already, too many people are being left behind.

It doesn’t require a Nobel Prize in chemistry to understand that higher education needs the support of politicians — and of all the people whose success began with what they learned at Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University, Cal or another of these world-class colleges.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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