June 11 2004

A DEAL FOR HIGHER EDUCATION

By Cruz M. Bustamante
Lieutenant Governor of California


At what cost are we attempting to balance the state budget? Although there are not many winners this year, the Governor’s proposed budget places an unfair burden squarely on the backs of our already overburdened college students. Relentless enrollment cuts and fee hikes jeopardize the future of our students and the future of our state. As students, parents and educators, we cannot be complacent and accept a decision to close the doors on a college education to thousands of students. History will judge us harshly if we fail to do right by our children.

Our prestigious institutions of higher education are the crown jewels of our Golden State and have been key in propelling our state into its distinguished position as the sixth-largest economy in the world. Yet, we are in danger of losing that position of economic primacy if we don’t maintain California’s leadership in education funding.

The state’s higher educational leadership abandoned the countless students and faculty who were fighting to preserve funding and access for thousands of students to California’s public colleges and universities. Top officials from the University of California and the California State University acquiesced to the Governor’s “leap-of-faith” proposal to fund higher education in future years in exchange for a shameful sacrifice of thousands of students this year. This “deal” would effectively slam the door of opportunity on thousands of students. This is a wrong that the Legislature should not allow to happen.

The solution to keeping the doors open could lie in something as simple as adding a few cents to a pack of cigarettes. The idea may not be popular with those who smoke, but we must decide what is more important. Taxing cigarettes is a far better choice than balancing the budget on the backs of working and middle class families, many of whom are already saddled with unmanageable education debt.

Our colleges not only educate our future leaders, but also serve as fuel for California’s powerful economic engine. Every $1 million that we invest in our universities and colleges pumps $4 million back into the state’s economy. This is a 400% return on our investment, which comes back to us in the form of research and development, venture capital, new technology, entrepreneurship and job creation. Clearly, California benefits greatly when we uphold the promise of access to higher education for our kids.

In fact, according to the Department of Finance, it is estimated that over 140,000 prospective students will be adversely impacted if the Governor’s budget passes. Course offerings will be reduced, fees increased and outreach eliminated. But perhaps the most dramatic effect will be to deny admission to more than 22,000 academically qualified applicants to the University of California and California State University. The state made these students a promise that if they applied themselves to their studies and met the high academic standards required for admission to these institutions, they would be accepted. Now, instead of preparing for their freshman year, these meritorious students are receiving rejection letters.

This is not fair. We raised K–12 educational standards to be the highest in the nation and then made a commitment to high school students, that who ever made it to the top 33% academically would be accepted into one of our California State University campuses. Further, we told students who made it to the top 12.5% of their class that they would be admitted to the University of California. Students, parents and teachers worked hard to help these students achieve these levels of accomplishment. We cannot betray their trust; we must not deny them opportunity. It is wrong for our state’s leadership to negotiate away student access to the pursuit of the American dream. We must keep our promise.

The Governor confronts a large and complex budget and has difficult decisions to make. However, I am saddened to learn that this administration and top officials from the UC and the CSU find it acceptable to cut a deal that squanders the future of California’s youth. We must view our children and their success as the solution to our budgetary woes, not irrelevant “collateral damage.” A tax of just a few cents on a pack of cigarettes could generate the funds necessary to address the Governor’s proposed higher education funding reductions and effectively eliminate the need for all related fee increases and enrollment cuts. The fate of our state rests on the shoulders of California’s higher education system. I will continue fighting, and I know there are many who will join me. Voice your opinion to the legislature. Educational opportunity doesn’t have to “go up in smoke.”

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