Los Angeles Daily News: Op-Ed: Challenge accepted - increasing UC, CSU affordability, access, graduation rates

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Our public universities have long been the cornerstone of what is known and celebrated worldwide as the California Dream.

Not only does our higher education system represent a reliable pathway to professional opportunities for our people but it also delivers a dramatic return on public investment by preparing a skilled workforce to propel economic growth.

During the Great Recession, California, like many states, was forced to reduce public funding for higher education, threatening the quality and affordability of a college degree for an entire generation of homegrown students.

With the economy on the rebound, now is the time to comprehensively restore the promise of higher education in our state.

But, so far, we’ve only been offered a binary choice — either allocate yet another short-term budget augmentation for UC and CSU or else hike tuition on the backs of California’s students and families who can least afford it.

These limited options fundamentally fail to address the underlying crisis facing higher education: namely, our economy desperately needs more Californians with college degrees but fewer of our homegrown students are able to access, afford and ultimately graduate from college.

California’s college financing system needs complete solutions that don’t just pry open doors to higher education for a handful of Californians but keep them open for every student in a public university so they can learn better, faster and more affordably — producing more graduates every year.

Not a Band-aid approach — a systematic rehabilitation.

Recently, Senate Democrats proposed a new plan to do just that. Senate Bill 15 will reform higher education financing to 1) expand access to UC and CSU for tens of thousands of Californians, 2) make it more affordable for hundreds of thousands more, and, most innovatively, 3) provide new classes, support and incentives for students to graduate within four years, which saves them money and frees up the educational conveyer belt for future students.

This plan wouldn’t just lift up a few thousand worthy Californians — it would make the whole system work better and expand the winner’s circle for entire generations of California students. Every student would benefit — and many more would actually make the dream of a college degree a reality. This comes on the heels of a study by the Public Policy Institute of California showing that if current trends continue, in 10 years, California’s supply of college graduates will fall 1 million short of demand — a troubling threshold, given our vital role in the innovation economy.

Absent a sharp and steady increase in the number of individuals earning bachelor degrees, California’s economic leadership and long-term prosperity will suffer.

Our proposal would wipe out the proposed UC tuition increase, increase aid and access for all California students at public and private colleges, and create incentive grants to help students stay on track for a four-year degree.

Doing all this will require a creative approach by the Legislature and the governor — and far more efficient and accountable use of taxpayer funds by our higher education system.

When UC President Janet Napolitano issued her controversial proposal to raise tuition — which nearly every elected official in the state opposed, myself included — she challenged us to come up with our own solutions and a new way to educate more Californians more efficiently without just throwing money at the problem.

Challenge accepted, Madame President.
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