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California's Higher Education Crisis | The Nation

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California's Higher Education Crisis

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In fall 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for governor of California, he famously told Fox News, "The first thing that you have to do is not worry about should we cut the programs or raise the taxes and all those things." He did, in fact, appear to worry about these things a great deal, though he seemed consistently to reach the wrong conclusions. Schwarzenegger's first act in office was to repeal an unpopular but highly effective vehicle-licensing fee, which would have generated $4.2 billion a year and would have helped to close the $8 billion deficit the state was facing. Because of California's Proposition 13, which requires a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses for any increases in tax rates, the state had very few easy options for increasing its revenue. Now, after five years of Schwarzenegger's leadership, the deficit has ballooned to $24 billion.

About the Author

Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, is an associate professor of creative...

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Schwarzenegger's monumental failure, along with voters' recent defeat of ballot measures that would have raised taxes and capped spending, add up to one thing: California faces the prospect of extremely drastic budget cuts. These include eliminating healthcare for poor children, releasing nonviolent offenders from prison one year early, closing all state parks, selling famous landmarks such as the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and euthanizing animals after only three days in shelters. But perhaps the most foolish of all the proposals under consideration is the $800 million cut from the budget of the state's public universities.

The University of California system includes six of the top twenty public universities in the country; its distinguished faculty have collectively received more Nobel Prizes than any other; and its alumni include some of the brightest innovators, scientists and artists in America. The computer you may be using at this moment was created by a UC alumnus--Apple's Steve Wozniak. It probably contains a processor made by another former UC student--Intel's Gordon Moore. The virus that causes AIDS was first identified at a UC school, and UC physicians were the first to perform surgery on a baby still in its mother's womb. That prizewinning book on your night stand? You can thank the California university system for it, too. Maxine Hong Kingston, Joan Didion and Michael Chabon are all former students.

It would probably not be an exaggeration to say that the University of California improves, in one way or another, the life of every person in the state.

The proposed cut to the UC budget will have two immediate consequences: larger classes and higher fees for students; and heavier workloads and salary cuts for faculty and staff. As classes become larger, the amount of attention given to each student will decline, as will the quality of education. Once higher fees are implemented, out-of-state students will increasingly choose to enroll in public universities outside California, taking with them precious money they would have spent on tuition, rent, books, meals, computers and other college necessities. With heavier workloads, UC faculty will have less time to devote to their innovative research. Salary cuts to UC staff will mean that more people will be unable to pay their mortgages, which will in turn worsen the housing crisis.

This cycle is entirely predictable, but it is not inevitable. There are fair ways to raise revenue. Earlier this year, for instance, State Assemblyman Tom Torlakson suggested increasing the state's cigarette tax by roughly $2 per pack, which would raise approximately $2 billion annually and bring longer-term healthcare savings for the state. Assemblyman Jim Beall has proposed a "dime a drink" fee on manufacturers and distributors of alcoholic beverages, which would raise another $2 billion. State Senator Loni Hancock argued in favor of restoring tax rates of 10 and 11 percent on incomes of $136,000 and $272,000 and above, which were last used under Republican Governor Pete Wilson. These are just some of the proposals that were made by progressive state representatives, but none of them passed. (Remember Prop 13?)

The UC budget represents only $3 billion of the state's budget, but its economic, educational and health benefits are enormous. The UC system employs 170,000 faculty and staff; it educates 220,000 students; its five medical centers serve more than 3.6 million patients each year; and for every dollar it receives in state research funding, it secures six more in federal and private research dollars. Cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from California's public universities would be an unmitigated disaster. It would result in huge losses in tax revenues for the state and a decline in the quality of healthcare, and it would eventually lead to nothing short of the dismantling of quality public higher education in the state.

Taxpayers in California are bracing themselves for a cataclysm. They know that many programs will be cut. But while some budget cuts may be painfully necessary, cutting the UC budget is simply not an option. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was a struggling actor with an unpronounceable name, he took classes at a community college funded by the people of California. He now proposes to repay the people's generosity by cutting funding to the public education that made his phenomenal rise to power possible.

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