UC leaders call for new strategies to finance higher education

Christopher Edley, as Obama adviser, vows to advocate expanded federal role in supporting state schools

| 10 December 2008

Mark YudofMark Yudof

Federal investment in the physical infrastructure of state-funded college campuses would stimulate a stressed economy in the short term and contribute to long-term social prosperity and well-being, UC President Mark Yudof told a group of distinguished scholars last week. Yudof shared a stage at Berkeley with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and Christopher Edley, dean of law, in a Dec. 2 symposium on "Challenges to Public Universities" held by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS).

The three UC leaders discussed the erosion of public universities' ability to compete with private institutions for students and faculty, and they called for new strategies for financing public higher education.

"Investment in human capital is what drives prosperity," Yudof told AAAS members and guests. California, under the post-war leadership of Gov. Pat Brown and UC administrator Clark Kerr, understood that dynamic, he said, as do developing countries around the world today who are emulating California's success by prioritizing investment in their public universities. Yudof called it "a great irony" that commitment to higher education "is very much up in the air . . . in the land where this all began." The old model for financing public education, with some exceptions, "is broken," Yudof said. "It's broken in California; it's broken across the country."

Birgeneau discussed various states' investment in, and models for, financing, higher education, and related student demographic data, including in-state vs. out-of-state students. (While UC has seen its primary mission as educating Californians, he said, some states particularly those that have most disinvested in public education are taking increasing numbers of out-of-state students.)

Comparing the record of public vs. private schools, Birgeneau expressed pride "that at UC we have a remarkable economic cross-section" of students. But "how sustainable is that achievement?" he asked.

At Berkeley, students' total yearly cost is about $26,000 and students graduate with an average debt of $7,000, he said. But 10 years down the road, that debt load is projected to reach $16,700. And while students from poor families qualify for substantial help to meet UC expenses, those from middle-class families with an annual income of $100,000 are eligible for "zero" public financial aid. (Harvard University, in contrast, now asks families earning less than $180,000 a year to pay between zero and 10 percent of their incomes, while subsidizing the remainder of these students' education.)

Private universities' competitive edge is largely because they tend to have "much smaller student bodies and much larger endowments" than their public peers, Birgeneau noted. When this dynamic gained steam in the 1990s, he said, it "changed the competitive situation in a fundamental way, and in my opinion changed it permanently." As a consequence, "we spend a large amount of time now" seeking to develop new financial strategies for public education.

Edley, in his role as an adviser to the incoming administration in Washington, vowed to push one such new strategy: more federal support for public higher education perhaps, as Yudof suggested, for infrastructure. (Edley was one of Barack Obama's professors at Harvard and serves on an advisory board to his transition team.) The Berkeley law dean also noted that California over the past three decades has built 22 new prisons but only one new UC campus and one new Cal State campus. Driven by anti-tax fervor, "the irresponsibility of the California public and political leaders in dismantling a world-class education system, K-16, is criminal," he maintained.

It wasn't always that way. California and Massachusetts proved historically, Yudof noted, that "it's possible to be a high-tax state with relatively high investment in human capital and do very, very well." But the Golden State today "is in great danger of becoming a relatively high-tax, relatively low-human-capital-investment state. And that is not a formula that will protect the great investment that has been made in the University of California," he warned. "To some extent we're living off of the investments that started in the 1960s and '70s, and the vision of that generation of leaders."