As chancellor of a public university, I regularly meet with our students—it helps me understand the challenges they face and reminds me who I’m working for. One of those students, Eric Pedroza, will soon become first in his family to graduate college. His parents are supportive but can’t afford to help pay his tuition, so in addition to Pell grants and scholarships, last year Eric worked three jobs—in an office on campus, for the city where he grew up and in a local clothing store.
Twenty years ago, tuition at UCLA was $1,624; adjusted for inflation, that would be $2,564 in today’s dollars. This year tuition is $12,192. Why has the cost gone up so much? Because during Eric’s lifetime, California has slashed per-student funding 60 percent. Other states have made similar cuts. UCLA has responded by significantly cutting our expenditures and continuing to hunt for more savings. But beyond those, the only alternative to tuition hikes is to make courses larger and offer fewer of them—a combination that would likely result in delayed graduations and more restricted career opportunities. That’s why the cost to attend public universities keeps going up and why we risk failing the next generation by pricing them out of a quality education. Public universities were created to expand access to higher education, but funding cuts are driving tuition up to the level of private institutions.
We need to keep public universities public. Exactly 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, giving states federal resources that allowed them to build colleges. That bold federal action helped make our nation a superpower. Today, by contrast, state governments all across America are failing public universities. They’re making it harder for Eric and thousands like him to graduate college; to end cycles of poverty; to serve our communities to their fullest potential; to remain the land of opportunity and the envy of other nations.
That’s why, if the U.S. wants to remain a leader and keep the American Dream alive, higher education needs a strong financial commitment from our next President. We need an aggressive, comprehensive strategy for saving our public universities that involves the federal government and private industry, which for too long has relied upon universities, at little or no cost, to provide an educated workforce as well as innovative, university-generated products and ideas. The next President could seek financial support from private industry in the form of a tax. Or better yet, he could consider other ideas, like one circulated by my colleague at UC-Berkeley, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who has suggested using federal matching funds to enhance donations when those in the private sector do step up to support public research universities. Whether the next President uses a carrot or a stick, higher education is America’s future—and it’s time to make it a priority.
Block is chancellor of the University of California-Los Angeles and chairman of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.