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By Henry E. Brady, Special to CALmatters

As a professor at UC Berkeley for over 30 years, I’ve seen the University of California’s life-changing impacts on students—many of whom are the first in their family to attend college.

I’ve seen what it means for faculty and students to do research that transforms the world. But I’ve also seen UC pushed to the breaking point.

Despite enormous state budget cuts during the tough economic times of the last 18 years, UC met the demands of California’s growing population by increasing enrollment of undergraduate students by 80,000—the equivalent of eleven Stanford Universities.

All the while, UC campuses continued to be rated as academic leaders and best-value institutions in worldwide surveys.

Can UC continue to be the best in the world?  In a newly released report, scholars from UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education argue that UC cannot sustain its leadership without a new funding model and a new compact with the state.

Until about 2000, California invested in UC at a relatively constant rate by providing additional funds for each new student who enrolled.  In return the state got the best research university in the world, serving today over 216,000 undergraduates.

Forty percent of those students are low income. These students, plus UC’s 55,000 graduate students, comprise a significant proportion of California’s future professionals and business leaders.

UC’s graduate students average nearly 600 new inventions every year, and every two weeks a startup is formed based on an invention created by a UC graduate student.

UC spends $4.5 billion on research every year and the majority of those funds come from outside California, adding significantly to the California economy.

Starting with the Dot-Com Bust of 2001 and continuing with the Great Recession of 2008, California drastically reduced its funding for higher education and allowed tuition increases to make up just part of the difference. Despite some increases in state funding in recent years, calculations in the 2018-19 University of California Budget for Current Operations show that UC now operates on $11,000 less per student in inflation-adjusted dollars than it obtained in 2000.

Some people might argue with the assumptions underlying this number. But even taking the most conservative approach, UC certainly gets by with $6,000 less per student than it did in the 1980-2000 period, despite two decades of tuition hikes. That means that UC provides a world-class education for a substantially lower expenditure in real terms than it did in the last two decades of the twentieth century.

In fact, because of its thriftiness, UC does not charge any tuition at all for 56 percent of its undergraduates.

The shortfall in funding is especially worrisome when compared with funding for kindergarten through 12th-grade education.

Average state spending per pupil in inflation-adjusted dollars for K-12 education is more than $2,000 more than its average level in 1980 to 2000—an increase roughly in-line with the rate of increase in state personal income per capita over this four-decade period.

UC has done much worse over the same period, with its core funding decreasing by at least $6,000 per student in real terms.  Replacing this funding would require an additional $1.6 billion a year, roughly 1.2 percent of the state’s general fund.

What could UC do with additional funding? It could control tuition costs. It could innovate in important ways. It could devise innovative online degree programs. It could increase enrollment by reducing the time it takes for students to graduate.

Higher education can’t solve all our problems, but it contributes powerfully to reducing inequality, providing well-educated workers and citizens, fostering innovation, and overcoming civic ignorance and intolerance.

The University of California is the best state research and teaching university system in the world. UC contributes significantly to the state’s thriving economy, its pre-eminence in science and technology, and its leadership in creating a decent and humane place to live.

Our next governor must safeguard this jewel and help it remain the world’s greatest public research and teaching university.

Henry E. Brady is dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley, He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.