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UC system reaching an existential ‘tipping point,’ new paper concludes

A photo of a lecture hall at UC Berkeley.

The 10-campus UC system is approaching a tipping point where it it may not be able to excel without increased state support. (UC Berkeley photos by Elena Zhukova)

After years of sagging funding and rising enrollment, the University of California system is nearing a “tipping point” where it cannot continue to grow with California’s population and labor needs without seeking new revenues and state reinvestment, according to a new report from UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies of Higher Education.

The report, published this week, provides the first detailed historical analysis of the 150-year-old, 10-campus UC system’s funding model, which was once based on enrollment workload. A stable source of state funding provided the foundation for UC’s growth in students, research, and public service programs.

“Look, California is the fifth-largest economy in the world and our pioneering public higher education system is a big reason for this,” said John Aubrey Douglass, one of the paper’s authors and a senior research fellow at the center, which is affiliated with the Goldman School of Public Policy. “UC has been a terrific engine for socio-economic mobility.”

The 47-page paper provides a picture of a university that has navigated state funding cuts while enrolling increasing numbers of students, maintaining its research productivity and serving California’s economy and social life.

Among the findings are the successes of UC system assets:

  • UC awards 33 percent of the state’s bachelor degrees, and 85 percent of students graduate within six years, compared to the national average of 59 percent
  • The UC system produces 75 percent of California’s life science Ph.D.s, 65 percent of the state’s engineering and computer science Ph.D.s and roughly half of the state’s medical students and residents
  • Forty-two percent of undergraduates are from households where neither parent has a college degree.
  • Just four of the 10 UC campuses enroll more low-income students than all the Ivy League universities combined. These students graduate at the same rates as their wealthier peers and earn more than their families soon after graduation.
  • UC researchers generate an average of five new inventions a day, and roughly 500 patents a year

And the changing financial picture:

  • While state support for the UC system shrank dramatically beginning in 1990, the UC system continued to expand enrollment in line with California’s population growth, from 166,500 in 1990 to nearly 273,000 today
  • Tuition hikes have not fully replaced cuts in state funding, and 33 percent of all tuition increases are returned to students in the form of financial aid
  • California residents have not borne the brunt of tuition hikes. At UC Berkeley, nonresident undergraduates make up roughly 19 percent of the student body and pay almost 40 percent of the tuition the school collects
  • Roughly 57 percent of UC undergraduates from California pay no tuition
  • Compared to the size of California’s economy, the government’s per-student contribution to the UC system has fallen by 66 percent since 2000

And while the report also found that there is little statistical evidence to suggest the quality of a UC education has declined as state funding has shrunk, Douglass and his co-author Zachary Bleemer, who directs the UC ClioMetric History Project at the higher education study center, argued that that trend is unlikely to last.

“We may be at the end of California’s once coherent effort, from 1910 to approximately 1990, to provide resources for UC to grow with California’s population and help meet the state’s labor and research needs and desire to mitigate inequalities in our society,” they wrote.

A photo of students on the UC Berkeley campus.

The report found that there is little statistical evidence to suggest the quality of a UC education has declined as state funding has shrunk, but that trend may not last.

Such a trend could leave UC leaders faced with difficult choices: limit enrollment and undermine the UC system’s mission to serve Californians, or continue to expand enrollment as California’s population grows and sacrifice educational quality, according to the paper.

Douglass and Bleemer go on to examine possible – and sometimes controversial – ways the UC system could adapt to an unpredictable future with limited state funding, including charging higher tuition for prestigious campuses like UC Berkeley or UCLA, cutting the amount of financial aid offered to students, charging higher tuition for lucrative degrees like computer science or offering online degree programs.

And while those changes may be necessary even with increased state support, Douglass and Bleemer conclude that the only sustainable solution is increased government support.

“The resources are there, and the total investment needed to allow UC, and CSU, to grow and maintain access to future Californians are relatively small compared to the state’s GDP,” Douglass said. “California’s knowledge-based business are already clamoring for more people from UC, and more people with Bachelor’s and Ph.D.’s.”

Contact Will Kane at [email protected]