Calif. Higher Ed: Charting the right path

by Tim Harrison

As an international exchange student, I have an outsider’s perspective on California’s education system. As an outsider, the thing that baffles me the most about getting an education in California is the staggering cost it incurs on students.

According to the California Education Round Table, a state-sponsored commission, an average student will pay well over $50,000 in tuition for a four-year degree at a University of California campus. This figure does not include non-tuition costs such as living expenses.

I compare this to the system in place in my home country, Australia, where, thanks to government grants and subsidies, a bachelor’s degree will cost me less than $30 000.

The Australian government also provides an interest-free loan covering up-front tuition costs of higher education to all students and families who require this assistance. This loan is then paid back through the taxation system once the recipient is deemed by the government to be in a financial position to do so. A very similar system is in place in the United Kingdom.

This ensures that every student who qualifies for university admission is financially able to gain a higher education and is not put under the same monetary pressures as many Californian students seem to be.

This is clearly not the case in California as services such as the ASUCD’s food bank, The Pantry, have become necessary to support financially struggling students. This is not a situation that is conducive to a productive education for students.

As with any investment in public services, supporting higher education students obviously has costs for the state, and, therefore, the taxpayer.

To create and maintain a highly educated labor force is, however, something that should be important to society. While natural resources and mass production are still integral parts of the contemporary global economy, the resource of a highly educated, highly skilled workforce is where potential for growth and innovation lies.

This can be seen in countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, where high-tech industries relying on highly skilled workers have created rapid economic growth in the last two decades.

Closer to home, innovations in information technology in Silicon Valley, audiovisual production in Hollywood and agricultural science at UC Davis are all examples of the contributions of highly-skilled labor forces in California’s economy and community.

In non-technical disciplines, too, there is inherent value. Understanding how how society works and the creation of art are central aspects of human knowledge. This value should be recognised through societal investment in the higher education of citizens.

In addition to the fact that California should invest more in the financial support of college students, the current political climate provides an opportunity to do so. As shown by the approval of Proposition 30 in November, there is clearly support for increased state funding of higher within California.

Despite the fact that Prop. 30 raised taxes, a majority of Californians supported the investment in education associated with Prop. 30.

In the state Capitol, present conditions are conducive to the passage of legislation to allow for a more affordable college education in California.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D – Los Angeles), promoted the interests of students in the California higher education system during his first term as Speaker and is now able to do this more effectively after the recent election.

Pérez’s Democrats now have a two-thirds supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, enabling them to act decisively on education investments that could be opposed by Republican legislators.

The position of Gov. Jerry Brown as an education advocate and major proponent of Proposition 30 also helps the cause of student support.

So, how exactly can California support those who wish to attain a higher education? While changing to the Australian system may be a long-shot, there are some substantive proposals to allow for further state support to higher education in California.

The first of these was discussed in the previous term of the California State Legislature. The Middle Class Scholarship Act, lobbied for by UC Davis students and originally introduced by Pérez, is a proposal that would have repealed tax breaks for out-of-state corporations. This revenue would have been used to provide a two-thirds reduction in tuition fees for Californian students in state-run higher education whose family earn a total of less than $150 000 per year.

This proposal, much like the system of subsidies in Australia, aims to support a large proportion of students and would substantially lessen the cost of a public higher education in California for up to 42,000 students currently in the University of California and California State University systems.

The bill passed the State Assembly in August of last year and failed to pass the Senate. Despite this setback, the Middle Class Scholarship Act was a solid proposal to support Californians seeking a higher education and is one that should be considered further by the state Legislature.

A second proposal doing the rounds in the state Capitol comes from the other side of the aisle. Republican Assemblyman Dan Logue’s plan, The Affordable College Act of 2013, is another attempt to curb the cost of a California college education.

Under this plan, tuition costs for bachelor’s programs in science, technology, engineering and  mathematics would be capped at $10 000 at California State University and $20 000 at the University of California. This cost-cutting would be achieved by increased reliance on less expensive online education options as well as greater access to degree credit in Advanced Placement high school classes.

This proposal provides a greater level of support for students by making degrees substantially more affordable than the Middle Class Scholarship Act but it is also much more restricted in its scope.

While the Middle Class Scholarship Act aims to support all higher education students below a certain income level, the Logue plan would only cover high performing students in high-skill areas such as engineering, information science and math disciplines.

In this way, Logue’s Affordable College Act targets education support to areas of the sector that are believed to provide the best payoff for California’s economy.

Despite this difference in focus from the Middle Class Scholarship Act, both are concrete examples of ways the current California State Legislature could act to support students seeking to contribute to Californian society through a higher education.

To have a highly educated population is not a luxury. It is something that provides concrete benefits to a society. To have a system where the pursuit of such an education is often prohibitively expensive does not make sense.

In order to alleviate some of this cost, a higher degree of state support is needed for higher education students. Not only is this support needed, but the political climate in the public, Capitol and Governor’s mansion is currently conducive to the provision of such measures.

Education advocates must take advantage of this political climate. California must now provide extra support for students struggling to attain a higher education in this state.

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