Tuesday, March 2, 2021
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Why California Must Reinvest in the UC System

On July 1, CA Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature instituted a $300.8 million budget cut to the University of California due to crippling economic losses by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Coupled with the drop in revenue from on-campus housing, declining out-of-state enrollment and the added costs of online learning services, this slash in the budget is likely to exacerbate the University of California’s financial turmoil. 

This is not the first time that the UC colleges have seen such drastic drops in revenue. Following the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, California similarly cut the system’s budget, reducing state funding by over one-third. Unfortunately, students bore the financial burden of the state’s actions, with UC tuition drastically increasing over the next four years. In fact, just between 2008 and 2012, in-state annual tuition at UC Irvine increased from $8,775 to $14,046 — a 60% increase. And for the first time in the history of California, revenue from UC student tuition in 2012 exceeded funding provided by the state.

California’s cuts in public university funding amid the COVID-19 economic downturn feels eerily similar to the Great Recession — especially considering the fact the University of California has already proposed annual tuition increases over the next five years to raise money for campus needs and financial aid. 

But while these drastic cuts in state education funding in 2009 and 2020 were a result of extenuating circumstances, drops in UC funding is in no way an anomaly. There has been a trend within the state of California to disinvest in public education, which has subsequently forced students to pay higher tuition prices for education. 

“In more recent decades, we’ve really seen a move to privatizing education and treating it as a private good,” said former dean of UCLA Law School and current professor at UCI Law, Rachel Moran. “And therefore we’ve required students to shoulder more and more of the burden of paying for their education.”

While the University of California justified these tuition hikes by arguing that the tuition is going to go towards helping lower-income students finance college, research shows that even if students receive financial aid, higher sticker prices on tuition can serve as deterrents from enrollment. Out of these students, people of color are less likely to enroll as the face price of tuition goes up. 

Furthermore, even if these tuition hikes go towards assisting low-income students, increasing tuition may only widen the pool of students who will need financial aid. Especially when paired with drops in state funding, many middle-class and lower-middle-class students may not receive sufficient financial aid to counter the spike in the price of college.

In this light, it becomes imperative that California reinvests in the UC system. While increasing funding for college may come with the short-run trade-off of increased spending by the state, these costs are outweighed by the long-run impacts that greater spending has on the quality of the UC education system and the socioeconomic mobility it grants to minority communities.

According to Moran, the drop in funding for the UC system directly impacted the system’s competitiveness among other U.S. universities. 

“At one point UC Berkeley was thought to be competitive with Harvard, Yale and Princeton. This was unheard of,” Moran said. “Now, since we’ve privatized and the state has stopped investing, Berkeley is no longer seen as directly competitive in the same way. There’s a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of disinvesting, and then you’re not quite the lustrous institution you once were.”

With greater investment from the state, the UC colleges can likely use the extra revenue to fund research and higher quality resources, likely advancing the quality of each UC relative to other universities. This is not only a favorable outcome for the UC system in itself, but also benefits the student, who is able to receive a higher quality education.

Moreover, investing in the UC system can have paramount impacts on increasing campus diversity, which ultimately uplifts low-income communities of color.

According to the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at UC Irvine, Douglas Haynes, Black students only make up about 3% of UC Irvine’s community, despite making up around 8% of the population. Haynes claims that in part, this disparity may be attributable to the fact that many low-income Black students grow up in school districts that are underfunded, which limits them from deciding to apply and enroll at a UC school. 

“For poor districts, their families can’t contribute and donate as much as a district in Irvine. They may have fewer parents that have college degrees. And those types of differences accumulate,” Haynes said. “It means that a student who’s situated like that has to work even harder to figure out … Do I have AP Courses? Can I afford the AP test? Those are just some examples of the relationship of socioeconomic status and race that can really suppress participation.” 

Even for marginalized students of color who do ultimately attend college, the high costs of college appear to limit students of color from finishing college or pursuing post-graduate degrees.  

“When [Black and Latinx students] do go into higher education, they have higher debt loads. Because they don’t have family wealth that can provide some of the capital to go into higher education,” Moran said. “Many of them will also be working their way through school for the same reason. In some cases, if there is family instability because of economic hardship, they may even drop out to work. So we do see differences in access that are linked directly to having to self-finance higher education.”

Because of the difficulties associated with financing education, communities of color are thereby prevented from attending college or gaining the same benefits from college that other privileged students may receive. By investing more in UC education, California can take the burden off of students to finance their own education, thereby increasing the enrollment of Black and Latinx students in the university. By doing so, the UC system can take a step forward to promote socioeconomic mobility within these historically marginalized communities, ultimately uplifting the economic success of the entire state. 

So, yes — increasing funding for the UC system does come with short term costs for the state, especially during a time where the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on California’s economy. Yet the state cannot make the same mistake of cutting funding and raising tuition like it did 10 years ago after the Great Recession. Instead of moving to defund the UC system, it is more important now than ever for the state to change its course and invest in public colleges. By investing in education, California would be investing in the mobility and success of millions of minorities that have historically been left behind. 

Varshini Srikanthan is an Opinion Staff Writer. She can be reached at vsrikant@uci.edu