Public Universities and colleges can serve as economic engines to drive economy out of pandemic slump


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By Dick Ackerman, CalMatters, Mel Levine, CalMatters,

Guadalupe Morales was a teenager when she became pregnant with her first child. She couldn’t afford a doctor and didn’t know what to do – until a friend recommended Venice Family Clinic, a nonprofit community health center where she could receive her prenatal care at no charge.

Today, as general manager of UCLA’s Bruin Plate, Morales is giving back to the place that cared for her. She is helping prepare some 13,000 ready-to-eat meals each week that the Venice Family Clinic then distributes for free to its patients in need.

This novel partnership is keeping UCLA dining staff working in their areas of expertise as demand for their services dropped because most students were no longer on campus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the pandemic’s unprecedented challenges, California’s public colleges and universities have launched new initiatives, like the UCLA-Venice Family Clinic Emergency Food Partnership, to keep their staffs employed and tried innovative approaches to keep students educated.

Their resourcefulness has helped prop up the state’s economy during the pandemic and prepare California for a post-pandemic world. The University of California, California State University and California’s Community Colleges are economic engines for the state. They provide jobs, workforce training and innovations. But they need the fuel of stable state and federal funding sources to help drive the state’s recovery as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

UC is California’s third largest employer, generating $82 billion annually in economic output for the state and more than half a million jobs. For every $1 in state funds, it generates $21 dollars in economic output. California’s Community Colleges is the nation’s largest provider of workforce training, and one in every 10 California employees is a CSU graduate. CSU spending generates $17 billion in economic impact in California, while California taxpayers receive $4.50 for every $1 invested in community college graduates.

The 2021-22 budget proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom would increase their budgets by 3% and includes a promise that tuition and student fees won’t be increased. The governor, in an agreement with legislative leaders announced last week, signed legislation this week that restored previously enacted reductions, effective July 1, for UC and CSU. We appreciate these proposed increases and restorations of lost funding amid the pandemic’s downturn in revenues and increase in demands on the state budget. 

But future budgets will need to make up for the funding losses public higher education suffered during the 2008-12 recession, the COVID-19 reductions in income from dining, housing and other on-campus services and the increased costs for new technology to shift to online instruction and other pandemic-related expenses.

From 2008 to 2012, when state investments in public higher education plummeted, UC and CSU doubled tuition, laid off and furloughed staff and deferred new construction and maintenance.  California’s Community Colleges also suffered $1.5 billion in funding reductions, causing about 600,000 students to lose  access to higher education.

State leaders tried to restore these lost funds in recent years. But California’s per-student funding is still far behind where it was in the mid-1970s. When California adopted the Master Plan for Education in 1960, it made a promise to make higher education accessible to all. The state is at risk of breaking that promise and slowing its economic recovery from the pandemic, if it cannot provide a stable source of funding for California’s public colleges and universities. 

As it is, California’s public colleges and universities wait every year to see how much they will receive from the state and federal budgets. Last-minute changes often result in funding gaps, which can lead to late-stage tuition and fee increases and financial aid adjustments. These increases and adjustments tend to fall hardest on the students who are the most vulnerable and most unlikely to be able to pay more.

Until our public colleges and universities can get off the roller coaster ride of uncertain state and federal funding, they will continue to struggle to fulfill their mission of providing the ladders to success for people from all walks of life – and that is a loss for all of us.


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