College—where the elite meet

Jack and Joe are affable guys, both popular on their Sacramento high-school campus. The fraternal twin brothers play the same sports and join the same clubs, and both have managed to make it to the end of their senior year with pretty good grades and test scores. But Joe’s are a bit better. Though both are qualified to move on, only Joe makes it into the California State University (CSU) system, because of enrollment cutbacks. Because the family can’t afford private college, Jack must join the workforce to make some money.

Watch out, Jack. The state of California and its governor have just arbitrarily handed your brother a huge economic advantage over you, all in the name of resolving the state’s budget deficit. As we all know, the average college graduate makes at least twice as much money as his or her counterpart who doesn’t get a higher education.

But what’s ironic is that the state has just hurt itself even more than it has hurt Jack. It doesn’t take an economics degree to understand that a successful system of higher education is crucial to the financial engine of the state, especially when you consider the impact of the skilled jobs, discoveries, innovations and basic brainpower that come off of campuses. University of California (UC) campuses, in particular, have been proven to have an enormously positive financial impact on the state’s economy.

Nonetheless, the Jack-and-Joe scenario is being played out across the state—for real—as politicians allow the budget deficit to justify enrollment rollbacks and accompanying tuition and fee hikes at UC and CSU campuses. Qualified students are being turned away by the thousands. Last year, the UC system turned away 7,600 qualified students, and CSU turned away 3,800, according to the state’s legislative analyst. A new report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education states that, at the rate things are going, literally hundreds of thousands of eligible students will be denied access to California’s community colleges in the next decade.

And the problem is about to get a lot worse.

In his current budget plan, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger—who entered office vowing to protect education—is seeking another 10-percent enrollment cut for the UC and CSU systems. These rollbacks will come on top of the freeze on enrollments that former Governor Gray Davis already established at these institutions last year.

As a proponent of creativity and innovation, Schwarzenegger, of all people, should know the importance of protecting and investing in the “research and development” arm of state government. (Hint: It’s called higher education.) Schwarzenegger should perceive the need for a just system that allows deserving, qualified high-school students—both Joe and Jack—to accept the promise of a college education in California.