State among leaders for public college spending

Despite the state’s budget deficits and cuts to higher education, California placed among the leading states in public university spending for the 2004-05 fiscal year, ranking fifth in the nation, according to a new report published by an education think tank.

Based upon total tax appropriations, the report found that California saw a 7.5-percent overall increase in higher public-education spending last year. The state trails only Florida, Virginia, New Jersey and New York in spending for public universities.

In all 50 states, state tax appropriations for higher education budgets rose by 3.8 percent from last year. The growth contrasted with a 2.1-percent cut in higher education appropriations included in the previous fiscal year’s budget.

Over the last 10 years, California almost doubled its spending, ranking second in growth only to Nevada. Nevertheless, when looking at a two-year period, the annual study conducted by the Illinois State University Center for the Study of Education Policy found that the state’s support for public universities is still 2.4 percent below its 2003 level, a position that places it 39th in the nation for growth over the same time period.

“In short, California has still not caught up with reductions suffered in the last recession,” said Illinois State University professor James C. Palmer, editor of the study.

That means the amount of money the state is paying to state colleges in the current budget is lower than the appropriations of three years ago, he said.

Almost all of the increases in California’s higher education spending between 2004 and 2005 can be attributed to an increase in appropriations for community colleges. Funds for all other sectors actually declined, according to Palmer.

“But again, the increase to the community colleges comes in the wake of prior declines,” Palmer said.

Despite the numbers, the state’s rankings are steadily slipping over the long term, according to UC Student Association President Jennifer Lilla. Though voter-approved Proposition 98 guarantees that a certain percentage of the state’s budget will go to fund K-12 education and community colleges, the state’s two university systems do not enjoy the same protections and have been hurt over the last several years, she said.

“We may have the fifth ranking for the last budget year, but look at the two-year and five-year numbers, we’re not even close to being fifth in the nation,” Lilla said. “Over the last five years, California funding to higher education has been slipping drastically. And even Proposition 98 can be suspended by the Legislature in times of financial crisis.”

According to the report, the majority of California’s tax dollars spent on higher education go toward universities. The University of California, California State University and the state’s community colleges receive over 90 percent of the funding. Appropriations for bureaucratic agencies like the California Postsecondary Education Commission accounted for only .02 percent of the state’s total higher education spending in 2005.

Nevertheless, Lilla said California’s education budget does not reflect its booming student population or its status as one of the largest states in the country. Lower fees, preservation of financial aid and funding for academic preparation programs top the list of what UC students want the most, according to Lilla.

“The state is going to have to make higher education funding more of a priority,” she said