College Guide


August 14, 2012 6:30 PM What Happened to California’s Higher Education System?

By Daniel Luzer

One of the frequent concerns raised by policymakers and economists with regard to higher education has to do with the college completion rate. As Tamar Lewin wrote in the New York Times a few years ago “the United States used to lead the world in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees. Now it ranks 12th among 36 developed nations.”

Part of the reason for this is that other countries are doing a better job getting young people through college than they used to. Another reason for this, however, appears to be that in the United States we’re actually moving in the wrong direction.

California is particularly reflective of this trend. According to a recent piece in The Economist:

California’s public universities were once the envy of the world. Under the state’s pioneering “master plan” for higher education, signed into law in 1960, the top 12.5% of graduating high-school students in the state are guaranteed entry to the well-respected University of California (UC) system; the California State University (CSU) system is open to the top third. Community colleges accept all-comers, including adults. The plan hugely expanded higher education in California, and led also to the emergence of world-class establishments like Berkeley and UCLA.
Yet it tied the universities’ fortunes to those of the state. In good times that was fine. But more recently public universities in California have been hit hard by the state’s fiscal woes. Declining state support has forced the UC system to slash costs and to raise average tuition fees by 50% in just three years. CSU fees have risen by 47% in the same period. “The historical model has broken down,” says Mark Yudof, the UC president.

California used to enjoy generously funded, high quality colleges and universities that were very cheap for California residents. Now its universities are strapped for cash and hiking tuition every year. As a result, Californians in their 50s are now better educated than those in their 20s.

The Economist article points out that private colleges in the state are doing just fine, in many cases expanding due to generous finances and families willing to pay high prices.

But, as Yudof points out, that’s not a solution. The decline in the education rate of Californians is a public policy problem. It’s only better policy that’s going to reverse the trend.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • POed Lib on August 14, 2012 10:49 PM:


    When universities accept only out-of-state students, the system will soon be destroyed. As a university professor, I hope that a meteorite destroys this campus. This is not just wrong, it is evil.

  • Gene O'Grady on August 14, 2012 11:34 PM:

    Wait a second. It didn't take something that happened in 1960 to make UC Berkeley a world class institution. I tend to think of the Sather lecturerships and A L Wheeler; most of you might know the names of Oppenheimer and Lawrence.

    And it's not really true that the state's recent fiscal woes have done the damage -- those policy decisions were made 1967-79, when the middle and upper middle classes were getting richer faster than they could count it.

  • Daniel on August 15, 2012 10:42 AM:

    @Gene O'Grady: As is true of most world class institutions, multiple things make UC Berkeley great. Berkeley was a world class institution before the master plan; it would probably continue to be world class even if it got $0 from the state. But the “master plan” kept Berkeley CHEAP and world class and made the entire University of California system great.

    The original policy decisions were made 1967-79, for sure, but the state's recent fiscal woes made the cost of CA's public college's dramatically worse.

  • bos'n on August 15, 2012 12:18 PM:

    1967-79 roughly coincided with the Reagan years as governor, right?

  • Gene O'Grady on August 15, 2012 12:34 PM:

    I sort of remember the master plan, having been a high school student at the time, and I don't think it really added anything to the idea of UC Berkeley being tuition free -- it was about expansion of the system within defined parameters when no one questioned the low costs.

    It might be nice to honor the people who really created UC Berkeley in the late 19th Century -- some of their names are on well known buildings. Also, one of my long ago bosses in the so-called private sector had been a friend of Clark Kerr. You really should emphasize how conservative a lot of these people were.

    Reagan was 1967-75; he certainly traumatized the University, dropped gas from helicopters and bears responsibility for the murder of James Rector, but the thing that killed the financial basis of the university (and the state of California) happened under the first term of Jerry Brown. Although it's the sort of natural outgrowth of economic system that provides no means of getting ahead except the appreciate of real estate values.

  • meander on August 15, 2012 2:35 PM:

    I'm a California resident but haven't started digesting the propositions slated for the November ballot. If indeed the tax proposition will have a major impact on UC and CSU (and community colleges?), will it inspire students to get really active and have massive voter registration drives, teach ins, rallies in support of the proposition, and so on? Or will they continue to keep their heads down and focused on studies? There have been hints of greater activism in recent years as fees keep climbing and climbing (often indicated by news helicopters hovering above UC Berkeley for hours to get footage of something or other).

    One of those key "policy decisions" noted by @Daniel and referenced in late columns is certainly Prop 13, which limited the increase in property taxes (possibly a good idea for private residences, definitely a terrible idea for corporations) and lead to the insane requirement that all tax increases require a 2/3 majority in both houses of the legislature to pass. (The similarly insane 2/3 req't for the budget dates from the 1920s.)

  • Milan Moraved on August 15, 2012 10:20 PM:

    University of California has priced itself out of their resident market. Public university major�s in harvesting money. University of California Berkeley is nationally ranked #1 public university total academic cost (resident) as a result of the Provost Chancellor goal to �charge Californians higher tuition�. UC Berkeley tuition is rising faster than costs at other universities. Cal ranked # 2 in faculty earning potential. Believe it: Harvard College less costly.

    University of California negates the promise of equality of opportunity: university access, affordability is farther and farther out of reach. Self-absorbed Chancellor Birgeneau, Provost Breslauer are outspoken for public Cal. �charging Californians much higher� tuition. Chancellor, Provost leave an indelible legacy on access, affordability.

    Birgeneau ($450,000) Breslauer ($306,000) like to blame the politicians, since they stopped giving them their demanded funding. The �charge Californians higher tuition� skyrocketed fees by an average 14% per year from 2006 to 2011-12 academic years. If Chancellor Provost had allowed fees to rise at the same rate of inflation over the past 10 years they would still be in reach of most middle income students. Breslauer Bergeneau increase disparities in higher education and defeat the promise of equality of opportunity. An unacceptable legacy.

    Additional state tax funding should sunset. The sluggish economy and 10% unemployment devistate family education savings. Simply asking for more taxes to fund self-absorbed Cal.senior leadership, old inefficient higher education practices, excessive faculty staff compensation and burdensome bonuses, is not the answer.

    UC Berkeley is to maximize access to the widest number of Californians at a reasonable cost. Birgeneau�s Breslauer�s �charge Californians higher� tuition� denies middle income families the transformative value of Cal.

    The California dream: keep it alive and well. Fire (honorably retire) Provost George W Breslauer. Birgeneau resigned.