Tuesday, October 21, 2008

College leaders struggle to find clear message

California's college and university leaders are struggling to decide on a public message as public investment lags.

Should the schools continue to push for unpopular fee increases? Or have funding tussles revealed the need for more fundamental changes, such as tax increases and constitutional amendments?

The urgency for an answer to public higher education's financial problems intensifies every year, leaders said, but approaches differ among the three public college systems.

All agree on the problem.

"I've worked in government for 40 years, and my experience has been that every 10 years there is a slowdown," said Charles Reed, chancellor of the 23-campus California State University system. "Now, that is happening every five years."

Colleges and universities say they are having trouble affording basic costs, falling behind on salaries, technology and student services. At the university level, per-student funding from the state has fallen consistently.

In the Cal State system, for example, the state this year is paying for 66 percent of each student's education, perhaps its lowest share ever. Eight years ago, the state budget contributed 79.3 percent of the cost.

Without public pressure, it's unlikely the governor or the Legislature are going to change those numbers dramatically. But educators have long struggled to decide how to bring their campaign to the public.

"We need to reach the point where people are Advertisementas concerned about higher-education funding as they are about the local library or park," said Mark Yudof, who became president of the 10-campus University of California system over the summer. "Obviously, we're not able to purchase a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl.

"We have to be clever about how we communicate."

The "We need to ..." statement has long been a common refrain among college leaders, but it is debatable whether those imperatives have led to effective solutions.

Polls have shown that college affordability is the foremost higher-education concern in California. Eighty-four percent of Californians last year said it was difficult for students to afford college, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll.

Fees have more than doubled in both the Cal State and UC systems since 2000, and they're likely to rise in the next year or two.

"People could probably pay more, especially if financial aid is there," Reed said. "But there is a point where we will price ourselves out of the kind of access that business and the public expect."

The fee increases — combined with highly publicized scandals involving administrators' salaries and perks — probably have diminished public goodwill toward the schools, said Patrick Callan, president of the San Jose-based National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education.

It would be more practical for administrators to re-examine their use of the money they have before trying to educate the public about their needs, Callan said.

"Higher-education people tend to feel that if people just understood them better, they'd be willing to give more money," he said. "The truth is, the more they know, the more critical they become."

Education leaders say student fees are one of the few places they can seek additional funding to pay for rising health care and retirement costs and to attract professors.

And they cite their systems' lost ground in the state budget, where higher education's percentage has declined by half — from 7 percent to 3.5 percent — over the past 30 years. The growing prison system is threatening to squeeze out colleges, administrators say, and the aging population is going to cost the state more every year.

Some have decried California's punishing budget process, which requires two-thirds of the Legislature to approve one. The state constitution's supermajority requirement — found in only a handful of states — has made it nearly impossible to raise taxes for education and other underfunded areas, said Sen. Jack Scott, D-Pasadena, who in January will take over as chancellor of the 110-campus community college system.

"I think the public, if they were given the choice, would pay higher taxes," he said. But it might take an initiative to reform the funding system, he said.

"When you have a structure that stands in your way, you have to change that structure."

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