Sunday, December 20, 2009

HIGHER ED: As state reneges on a promise, students hurt their own cause

Santa Rosa Press Democrat Editorial

Photo: NOAH BERGER / Associated Press  - A broken light marks the chancellor’s residence at UC Berkeley, where demonstrators broke windows and threw burning torches on Dec. 12.

Sunday, December 20, 2009 -- In 1960, California adopted a landmark plan to make higher education available and affordable to everyone.

Access to the University of California was guaranteed for the top 12.5 percent of the state’s high school graduates, the top third were promised spots in the state university system, and community colleges would welcome all students.

The Master Plan for Higher Education made California a national model, just as it was for K-12 education, highways and other public infrastructure. A half-century later, the Golden State’s promise of college education for all is crumbling like its highways — at great risk to its future prosperity.

As billions were cut from the budgets of the universities and community colleges, the state’s commitment to higher education declined from 17 percent of the state budget in 1980 to about 10 percent this year. Student fees, meanwhile, have soared — up fourfold in the past decade to $10,000 a year at UC, about 40 percent more than the average public university, according to the College Board.

So, instead of being guaranteed, a higher education is becoming unaffordable, especially for students working their way through school.

There’s a public cost to be paid for that.

Fewer students are completing college at a time when a growing number of jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree. By 2025, a Public Policy Institute of California study estimates that 40 percent of all jobs in the state will require a college degree, but less than a third of working-age adults will have one.

The time to address this shortfall is now.

But anyone who thinks the dangerous antics last weekend advance the cause is sadly mistaken. Eight people, including two students, were arrested after windows were broken and burning torches were thrown into the campus home of UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau on Dec. 12.

A note to students: UC officials have been among the most vocal supporters of increased state aid for higher education. Perhaps the students missed it during their sit-in demonstrations, but UC President Mark Yudof was among the first to testify at a legislative committee hearing on the state’s failure to meet its commitments under the master plan. “Our perils are real, and they are immediate,” Yudof said.

For example, colleges and universities are turning away students, despite the demand for skilled workers. The 23-campus California State University received about 610,000 applications for fall 2010, up 28 percent from last year. Yet it’s preparing to reduce its 450,000-student population by 40,000 over the next two years. By 2014, the state projects that there will be 640,000 more applicants than the state’s colleges and universities can accommodate.

Finding a solution may require help from the industries that benefit from UC research and employ students educated at state universities and colleges. Displays of ignorance and acts of vandalism won’t attract that help.

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