This Op-Ed originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle
By Julia I. Lopez and Mike Roos
For many in California, May marks the beginning of commencement season. Graduates and their families mark their accomplishments and step forward to new opportunities. Unfortunately, increasingly in California, the month highlights a more somber reality. Thousands of college applicants are being denied admission, either because our state universities did not have capacity to admit them or because they could not pay the cost of attendance.
In recent months, the public conversation about the “free college” proposal signaled a welcome return to recognizing the importance of investing in higher education in California. Eliminating tuition in public colleges and universities would encourage those who did not think they could afford college to pursue their education, and it would offer students welcome financial relief.
The unanswered question remains: How long could the state afford to pick up this hefty tab? What happens the next time there is an economic downturn and the state budget needs to be cut back?
The state will face the same difficult choices that led to substantial tuition increases during the past few years. To balance the state budget, higher education will experience budget reductions, and institutions will once again turn to increasing tuition revenues to soften the impact of these cuts.
We must break free of this pattern. Making college more accessible and affordable to all qualified Californians over the long run will require a more fundamental rethinking of how California finances the increasing demand for higher education and plans for our collective future.
During the past decade, thanks to great improvements in our K-12 system, high school graduation rates have steadily increased, and the proportion of students graduating academically ready for college jumped by almost 50 percent. Applications for freshman admission increased 57 percent at the University of California and 77 percent at the California State University during that time. And, during that same period, nearly 1 million students were turned away.
Admission to college and tuition costs have depended far too much on good luck and good timing. If students applied to college when the economy was sound, there was enough money to make room for them on college campuses, and tuitions were relatively stable and predictable. In a bad year, which has been about half of the time in the past decade, large and increasing numbers of students were turned away. Many experienced dramatic tuition increases.
In short, tuition costs are only part of the problem. We also need to increase the capacity of higher education institutions to educate the growing number of California students who are being shut out because of financial constraints. Instead of just moving ahead with the “free college” plan as it now stands, we should step back and take a comprehensive look at the way we finance our public institutions of higher education for this and future generations.
What does that mean? It means determining future demand for higher education and planning for the long term. It means stabilizing funding and making it predictable so families and institutions can plan for costs associated with pursuing or offering college degrees. It means a serious examination of our higher education system’s cost structures, and wiser use of existing resources. (While the public might be ready to support more money for higher education, they will do so only with concrete assurances that the money will be spent responsibly.) Finally, it means that students, institutions, policymakers and the public must have a shared understanding of how resources are allocated to ensure student access and success.
Addressing the challenge of how we finance our systems of higher education will be difficult — but it is necessary, and it is possible.
If our goal is to ensure that all California students now and in the future have access to an affordable, quality college education, then our public policy makers and higher education leaders must build a shared vision of this issue and find practical ways to solve it. We know that this is a long-term problem that will require a multiyear solution, but we also must realize that we have no time to waste.
Julia I. Lopez is president and CEO of the College Futures Foundation, a private foundation working to help low-income and underrepresented students in California to earn a four-year college degree. Mike Roos, a former state legislator, serves as council member of California Competes, an organization devoted to improving policies and practices in higher education.