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Whither an affordable college education?

UC Berkeley students walk through Sather Gate on the Berkeley campus.

Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 4, 2013 at 5:22 p.m.

At 38, Das Williams is still a young man. A relative newlywed, the new chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee remains at that stage in life in which, when his work schedule and the tide tables align, he will grab his surfboard and catch some waves before breakfast.

Even though he is not yet 40, however, the story of how Williams got ahead in life — which is to say, how he attained his education — seems like a tale from ancient California history.

As a teenager, Williams dropped out of high school. But he enrolled at Santa Barbara City College, lived for a time out of the back of his Volkswagen van and in two years' time was able to complete the requisite classes to move along to UC Berkeley.

Once there, he was able to make enough money hauling around cans at a recycling center to supplement his scholarships and earn a bachelor's degree without having to saddle his future with a heavy load of debt.

To those who were born about that time, in the early 1990s, that tale must seem as distant in California's history as those of picking oranges in the San Fernando Valley, or buying a $40,000 home in Newport Beach.

They know better than anyone that such a California no longer exists.

In 2013, Williams and others in the Legislature believe, it's time to start bringing it back.

The voters' passage of Proposition 30 was a start. That averted $500 million in additional spending cuts at the University of California and California State University and at least delayed another round of tuition increases.

But things have reached the stage where simply avoiding further deterioration in access to higher education is not enough. It's time to start making things better.

How different is the world of public higher education in California from the time when Williams enrolled at Berkeley? This year, for the first time, the University of California received more money from student fees than from the state budget. That ratio has declined dramatically in just a generation. Twenty years ago, taxpayers subsidized about 78 percent of the cost of an undergraduate education at UC. Today, it's less than 50 percent.

UC fees for in-state undergraduates have ballooned from $951 in the 1990-91 academic year to $11,160 in the 2011-12 academic year.

The situation is much the same at California State University. In the 1996-97 school year, CSU received about $1.8billion from the state to educate 262,000 students. In the 2012-13 school year, it's still receiving about $1.8 billion, but has an enrollment of 332,000.

The result has been predictable: The percentage of high school graduates attending any public university in California has dropped from 49 percent to less than 41 percent.

The time has come, Williams believes, to start reversing that trend.

To begin, he'd like to find a source of revenue that would be dedicated to higher education, a source of funds that would be insulated from future budget cuts.

Two such attempts failed last year — the ambitious plan of Assembly Speaker John Pérez to end a corporate tax treatment that benefited out-of-state companies and devote the resulting revenue to scholarships for students from middle-class families, and a much more modest proposal by Williams to set aside revenue from the leasing of state properties. The scholarship bill failed in the Senate, and Williams' proposal was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

“I am confident we will try again,” Williams told me last week. “This is too important a task to not try again.”

There has been some talk of putting an initiative on the 2014 ballot to raise cigarette taxes and dedicate the revenue to higher education. Williams has not been part of those discussions but says he would “support voting to put that on the ballot. I would campaign for that with all my energy because this is a crisis.”

Most of the Legislature is made up of men and women in their 40s and 50s, and a quick scan of their biographies reveals where most got their college educations — UCLA, UC Irvine, Fresno State, CSU Northridge, Long Beach State, San Jose State. In this regard, they resemble a generation of Californians who were blessed by forward-thinking investment in public higher education.

Their lives would be different if they were coming of age today, and their futures more uncertain.

Looking back, Williams acknowledges that today his path to a college degree “would have been impossible.” At the dawn of 2013, it's time Californians resolved to reinvest in the opportunities that they themselves have already reaped.

Timm Herdt is a columnist for the Ventura County Star.

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