We promise kids they can get a public college education if they work hard. Are we lying?

This Op-Ed originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee on November 16, 2017. 

By Ted Lempert and Lenny Mendonca

California’s higher education system is about to be hit by a tidal wave of new students, and we have failed to prepare for the influx into our public colleges and universities.

In April, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced the graduation rate had increased for the seventh straight year and is at a record high.

More importantly, the proportion of high school graduates who have completed the courses required for admission to University of California and California State University campuses has increased by nearly 50 percent.

These increases happened as California implemented more rigorous learning standards. It’s a significant achievement and an indicator of the hard work being done by educators and students.

But California’s colleges endured severe budget reductions during the Great Recession, and their funding is only now being restored. When higher education budgets tighten, access for students gets cut. Data show these cuts disproportionately affect low-income students, Latinos and African-Americans.

Between 2005 and 2015, nearly 1 million California residents who applied for freshman or transfer admission to the California State University and the University of California were turned away. California’s community colleges, which are supposed to be accessible to all, enrolled 230,000 fewer students in 2015 than in 2005.


  • Freshman applicants to California State University campuses increased by nearly 100,000 students, or 77 percent, between 2005 and 2015. But during that time, CSU cut back on freshman and transfer admissions and is just now getting back to pre-recession levels. During that lost decade, nearly 80,000 qualified students were turned away.
  • Resident applicants to UC increased by 66,000, or 57 percent, between 2005 and 2015. But admission rates of California residents declined from 86 percent to 59 percent during that decade. African American and Latino students experienced the steepest declines.

California is failing in higher education policy, planning, and funding. According to a recent Public Policy Institute of California survey, 59 percent of likely voters say the level of state funding for higher education is not high enough.

While pursuing decades-long investments to ensure California students graduate from high school, the state didn’t do enough to prepare its public higher education systems for the increased demand.

Instead, the state continued down the path of boom/bust funding for public colleges and universities. The state left it to the institutions to figure out how to cope with the influx of students, and made no changes in the funding systems to ensure that resident student access was protected as a first priority.

The collision in policy between our aspirational goals for all students in K-12 and the academic and socioeconomic sorting that is going on in public higher education spells real trouble for the future of our state.

California is sending a mixed message to its next generation of leaders and wage earners. They are told to play by the rules if they want to access opportunity, but when they knock on the doors of higher education, they are told, “Not now. Sorry.”

If we don’t act, we risk creating a generation, particularly among people who have been underrepresented in higher education, defined by restricted access and lost opportunity. California must make good on its promise.

California waives already lowest-in-the-nation community college fees, which benefit students with or without a demonstrated financial need. But we need to move beyond such initiatives by removing often insurmountable barriers of attending college, such as the high cost of books, food insecurity, limited access to childcare for students with children., and the astronomical cost of housing.

With the 2018 election approaching, we need to select state leaders who will develop long-term plans to accommodate more students, close the attainment gap, stabilize funding, contain costs, and create accountability through transparency and measuring performance. We must elect leaders who focus on the basic life needs and the growing income inequality that places a public college education beyond the reach of far too many Californians.

Ted Lempert is president of Children Now; TLempert@childrennow.org. Lenny Mendonca is chairman of the board for Children Now and serves on the Council of California Competes; Lenny@mendoncas.com.