Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

What It Will Mean If California Guts Its Colleges to Save Its Prisons

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UCLA professor Peter Baldwin makes a compelling case that the UC system is that rarest of birds: a government program of remarkable achievement and “staggering” efficiency:

In both of the two most respected global rankings of universities, the University of California system supplies at least 10% of the top 50 institutions worldwide. In the Academic Ranking of World Universities put out by Shanghai Jiao Tong University (usually referred to as the Shanghai index), seven of the UC’s 10 campuses rank in the top 50. In Britain’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the UC system has five campuses in the top 50 with a sixth four notches lower. This is an extraordinary achievement for a publicly financed system of higher education, particularly for one that was founded just a century ago.

If we add in the three private California universities (Caltech, USC and Stanford) also in the Shanghai top 50, California is arguably the heaviest-hitting state in any league of higher education. To find something comparable, you would have to aggregate the combined performance of the entire Northeastern United States. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York together have produced precisely as many Shanghai top 50 institutions as California. And they have done so with the head start of an extra century or more of development, with the resources of a combined population base close to twice California’s and, of course, with vast amounts of private-pocket financing.

The combined endowments of the 10 top-50 institutions on the East Coast top $80 billion. The West Coast’s 10 top-ranked universities have a combined endowment of just over $21 billion, or about one-fourth of what their East Coast counterparts have amassed. Moreover, Stanford alone accounts for more than half of the endowment money held by the West Coast’s top universities. 

In other words, when you subtract Stanford and its endowment, California still has 9 top-ranked universities cobbled together out of a combined endowment that is less than half the size of Harvard’s or Yale’s. (This is also the point at which we might pause and wonder what in the world Harvard and Yale are doing with all their money, but that, of course, would be a separate post.) Actually the point could be made even sharper if we just compare UC and Harvard: The University of California’s combined endowment is about $5 billion; Harvard’s is about $27 billion. I’m hesitant to go too far down this road because I don’t know enough about the particularities of how the individual UC campuses are funded but I’d venture to say that the UC system does a pretty remarkable job with its fairly minimal endowment plus a few billion in annual state funding, educating far more students, and far more diverse students, than Harvard. (This also calls to mind Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece on the inanity of college rankings, which is unfortunately paywalled.)

When you consider the return on investment, California is actually getting a pretty good deal on the UC system. But think of how much more the UC system could do — and the Cal State and community college systems, too — if California weren’t simultaneously pouring even more money into the prison system. When we hear that California spends more on prisons than it does on higher education, that California college students are facing higher tuition burdens and threats of program cuts, this is what that means: It doesn’t mean trimming the fat of a bloated bureaucracy, it means cutting into the bone of one of the great educational institutions in the history of the modern state. It means that shipping 18-year-olds to cages in the desert is more important to California voters and taxpayers and legislators than sending 18-year-olds to Berkeley and Santa Barbara and UCLA.

I’m sure there are plenty of problems and inefficiencies in the UC system, but on the whole, it’s a pretty remarkable institution. I grew up in the South, a region that values its public universities primarily for their football teams and secondarily for any education they might provide. This is not to knock the education they provide, which is sometimes very good, it’s just that when times are tough the schools are forced to muddle through tuition hikes and budget cuts, and meanwhile private donors keep the football teams absurdly well funded. The irony, of course, is that we always suspected the football players themselves weren’t getting much of an education and now we know that it’s actually the opposite: they are quite literally destroying their brains.

This is all a long way around the barn, but I’m indulging in this digression because it helps to explain why I find the diversity and quality of California’s state university system so impressive. I am well aware that there are many problems with the UC system, that it could well be simultaneously a bloated bureaucracy and an excellent university, and even that it, too, fields football teams. Nevertheless: What a stupid tragedy it would be to dismantle the University of California, funding cut by funding cut, even while California fights tooth and nail to keep its prison system intact.

Written by sara

February 23, 2011 at 9:40 am

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  1. […] Lots of good links have been piling up in my queue; although ostensibly discussing a variety of subjects, they are all, at their core, variations on a single theme — community, and the need to look beyond ourselves to discover it.  Whether it’s a matter of health care services or labor economics, transportation or corporate philanthropy, compassionate engagement with our fellow human beings is a hot topic, hip enough even to be video-game-worthy.  Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not such awareness and bottom-up initiative can scale into meaningful policy before it’s too late. […]


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