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Dividing California’s Higher Education Pie

Kevin Cook, Hans Johnson January 20, 2015

The tuition increase recently approved by the University of California Regents has ignited a debate about how the state allocates money for higher education. A brief look at the history of state funding can provide some much-needed perspective.

Each higher education system—UC, the California State University, and the community colleges—receives substantial funding from the state. Most of the remaining funds for instruction come from tuition paid by students. (In this analysis, we look at allocations from the state General Fund and property taxes so that we can compare institutions across time.)

Since 1965, the share of higher education funding provided directly by the state has shifted from the four-year systems to the community colleges. In the mid-1980s, the community colleges received about a third of the state allocations to public higher education institutions. In 2014‒15, the community colleges got more than half of the pie. Meanwhile, the share allocated to CSU and especially UC has been shrinking. UC’s share fell from 38% in 1965 to 24% in 2014‒15, and CSU’s share declined from 25% to 22%. The governor’s proposed 2015‒16 budget includes a funding increase of $843 million to the state’s public colleges and universities—71% ($600 million) of which would go to the community colleges.

The large increase in state allocations to community colleges is linked to increased enrollment. But enrollment has increased just as much at UC and CSU. Indeed, on a full-time equivalent basis, UC, CSU, and the community colleges each serve about the same share of the state’s public higher education students today as they did 50 years ago. So what explains the shift in the share of funding from UC and CSU to the community colleges?

The short answer is Proposition 98.

After Proposition 13 passed in 1978, the state’s community colleges—which unlike UC and CSU relied partly on property taxes—saw a sharp reduction in their share of state and local support. Ten years later, voters passed Proposition 98, which guaranteed K–12 schools and community colleges a minimum percentage of the General Fund and property tax revenue. Proposition 98 guarantees that K–12 schools and the community colleges get about 40% of these allocations—and about a tenth of that share goes to the community colleges. Some have argued that Proposition 98 acts as a funding ceiling for K–12 schools and community colleges, but it also serves as a floor.

UC and CSU lack the same funding protection. While many budget areas outside of higher education are at least partially protected by dedicated funding streams, court orders, or matching federal funds, UC and CSU are vulnerable when state revenues decline. The universities have faced disproportionately large cuts in their general fund allocations during times of economic hardship. From this vantage point, a funding floor—even one that doubles as a ceiling—is preferable to a funding drop-off.

The three higher education systems also receive indirect forms of state support such as Cal Grants, fee waivers, and middle-class scholarships. Grant aid has increased for students at all institutions of higher education in California. Our best estimates suggest that community college students receive slightly more of these state funds (41% of the total in 2011‒12), than UC students (40%) and much more than CSU students (18%).

The debate over higher education funding could benefit from a clearer understanding of how the pie is divided. But the most important issue for the state’s young people is that the pie is not keeping pace with demand. Our four-year colleges have record numbers of applicants and the shares of students who are academically qualified to attend them have increased. The future prosperity of Californians and their state depends on access to higher education. To address these issues, policymakers need to focus on improving vocational programs and pathways from community colleges to four-year colleges and improving access and enrollment at UC and CSU.

Notes (TOP FIGURE): 2012-13 to 2014-15 numbers are from the governor’s budget; earlier data is from the California Postsecondary Education Commission. We include property tax allocations which are a component of the state’s obligation to community colleges pursuant to Proposition 98.

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