What’s a great university worth?

The State of California owns and operates three of the twenty most important research universities in the United States (UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and UCLA), one of the great biomedical research centers (UCSF), and two more campuses (Santa Barbara and Irvine) each of which is substantially better in academic terms than the flagship campus of the average state university system.

Even during the boom, however, the state had implicitly made the decision to let those assets run down over time. In 1970, UC spent 70% of what Stanford spent to educate an undergraduate for one year; now it spends about 30% as much ($14,000 v. $50,000. The enrollment growth necessary to serve the echo baby boom generate is being paid for at $8000 per student per year.

In addition, the quality of undergraduate education has been severely eroded by the policy of accepting almost exclusively California residents as freshman admits, depriving UC students of exposure to people from the rest of the country (let alone the rest of the world).

There are two alternatives to a policy of letting UC sink slowly (fortunately, this sort of thing does happen slowly, over a period of years) into mediocrity: more money from the state budget, or higher tuition. (Pardon me: that’s “fees;” the California constitution requires that the university charge no tuition, so our students have the privilege of paying “fees” instead.)

In Maryland, where the previous two administrations managed to bring the flagship campus to the very brink of excellence, the new governor seems to be committed to pulling it back from that brink.

No doubt the same pattern is being played out elsewhere.

As a faculty member of the University of California, my own view about the right course of action is hardly an impartial one. But I’d like to pose a question to our new governor, elected on a platform of improving California’s business climate, and to Maryland’s new governor, who also likes to describe himself as “pro-business”: What is the impact on the business climate of a state of having, or not having, a world-class state university system?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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