Targeted education reform can preserve renowned UC school system

The series of firestorms currently underway at California’s public colleges and universities appears not to have burnt itself out yet. Just today, a group of students from the state’s elite University of California schools gathered in Sacramento at the state capitol to protest increased budget cuts and what San Francisco Chronicle contributor Daniel Sargent calls “divestment from public education.”  Faced with this phenomenon, the Chronicle asks a sobering question whose potential answers should concern Californians – will the UC system eventually become a second-rate institution, eclipsed by the great names of the East Coast?

Implicit in the question is a suggestion by the Chronicle that “We need to summon the historical vision of those congressional Republicans who in 1862 worked to build the future while facing a crisis more serious than ours. Failure will impoverish California and an entire nation that once gazed west with optimism.”

Sargent, himself a professor at Berkeley and a graduate of Harvard, has cause to worry. Given that all public colleges and universities in California receive a sparse 13% of total budget expenditures, whereas institutions of K-12 education receive roughly 40%, it’s no surprise that budget cuts to the smaller set of institutions would worry those who have put in time and effort to ensure their continued solvency as institutions of state excellence. However, despite this justifiable alarm, there are a number of reasons why it seems that the UC System is unlikely to collapse, relative to the East Coast. The reason for this lies in the answer to another of Sargent’s dilemmas – the fact that “Massachusetts would survive the collapse of UMass, but California’s fortunes are bound to its flagship university. If public education withers here, there is no parallel system of private education to supplant it.”

Tempting though it may be for partisans of higher education to compare California’s school system to the system of the East, the comparison is less persuasive than it would first appear. Purely on the level of geography, the comparison of California to Massachusetts is an unfair one, given that Massachusetts is a fraction of the size of California, thus suggesting that, were UMass to collapse, students could attend the University of Connecticut or the University of New Hampshire or any of several other schools whose distance is similar to students from Los Angeles attending UC Berkeley.

Moreover, the two systems are different in the sense that they cater to different markets – UMass, Harvard, Amherst and other Massachusetts schools cater to a national applicant pool, whereas the UC system is notoriously difficult to penetrate from outside California. As such, while California students do compete with students from all over the country for admission to Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Wesleyan and other East Coast juggernauts, they are all but completely insulated from similar competition at UC schools, marking those schools as convenient fallback options in the case of rejection in a nationally competitive applicant pool.

However, convenient though this situation may be for the students, it may actually account for a greater amount of trouble within the UC System’s budget. Failing to cater to a national applicant pool means that, by necessity, a wider range of students with a wider range of income will go unrepresented in that applicant pool. Moreover, because of the geographic concentration of alumni with roots in one particular state, the broad support networks of schools such as those in the Ivy League may be more difficult to form where the UCs are concerned. Undoubtedly, the protectionism of the UCs has its benefits, but those benefits are not necessarily fiscal in nature, nor are they benefits which are necessarily sustainable in the present fiscal environment. As such, if the budget cuts proceed at their present rate, one particular option which could be employed by the UC system might be a widening of the net to accept students from more diverse geographic backgrounds.

Naturally, none of this obfuscates a larger issue, which is the state’s seeming inability to recognize its own best assets. Nobody comes to California for its admittedly low-rated secondary public schools, but when it comes to our statewide higher education system, the UCs are, as Sargent himself points out, the envy of America, if not the World.   As such, the state should once more consider broad-based education reform allowing them to shift resources from failing institutions to those which actually produce success.