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By Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine, Special to CALmatters

Pat Brown was a true champion of higher education, but Jerry Brown has never made support for the University of California or the Cal State system a big part of his agenda.

Now, incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom has the potential to pick up the mantle and, once again, make higher education a top state priority.

Californians get it.  A new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California found that most voters say that there is not enough state funding for higher education.  Three-quarters of the electorate believes that higher education should be a high priority for our new governor.

Newsom has said that a significant increase in the investment in higher education is high on his agenda. With the state’s fiscal health in good shape, that should be possible.

Under Gov. Pat Brown, the Master Plan for Higher Education was adopted to define the complementary roles of the University of California, the California State University system and the community colleges. The state made significant investments in all three institutions.

State funding has had its ups and downs ever since. Gov. George Deukmejian brought it back up with a 30 percent increase in 1983, but funding levels have fluctuated with fiscal crises and other priorities.

Overall, per student state support for higher education has eroded markedly, forcing increases in tuition and fees. This is particularly true for the University of California, where per-student state support is barely half of what it was 30 years ago.

Higher education’s share of California general fund expenditures has dropped from 18 percent in 1976 to less than 12 percent in 2018.

To their credit, Jerry Brown in his second stint as governor and the Legislature began to reinvest in higher education with modest funding increases, but there is a long way to go.

The Public Policy Institute of California has estimated that the California workforce needs more than a million new college graduates in the coming decade.  Most of these new grads will have to come from our public higher education system.

To accommodate more California students, while maintaining their standard of excellence and avoiding additional tuition increases, university systems are requesting substantial increases in state funding, $706 million for the California State University System and $378 million for UC.  The community colleges are requesting at least $360 million.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst has estimated the governor and Legislature will have about $15 billion in discretionary spending in the 2019-20 fiscal year, so these requests are certainly realistic.

Boosting higher education funding would be a good start. But the new governor should address the future of our public higher education system and its integral role in the well-being of all Californians.

There is much to be done:

  • Restore per-student state funding to traditional levels.
  • Assure a stable, ongoing revenue flow from the state that will enable our higher education institutions to plan and grow responsibly.
  • Make a long-term commitment for new classrooms, laboratories, faculty offices, technology and other infrastructure needs that will reverse years of neglect and provide state of the art facilities on our campuses.
  • Harness new technology to enhance the educational experience, increase productivity and provide additional avenues for more Californians to access our higher education system.

If Gov. Newsom and Legislature, in concert with the leadership of UC, CSU and the community colleges—seriously tackle these challenges, the Newsom years could become a new golden age for California higher education.


Dick Ackerman, [email protected], and Mel Levine, [email protected], co-chair the California Coalition for Public Higher Education. Ackerman is a former California legislator representing Orange County, Levine is a former member of Congress from Los Angeles. They wrote this commentary for CALmatters.