By David M. Greenwald
Yesterday’s column pointed out that, since the 1970s, funding priorities have shifted away from higher education and toward funding prisons.
One piece of data that jumped out at me was this—between 1979 and 1994, when the spending for prison finally passed spending for higher education, California only opened one university campus. (Since 1994 only two CSUs and one UC have opened).
Despite the fact that from 1979 to 1994, enrollment increased 50 percent for UC and CSU, the number of new campuses that opened was very small. During the same time, however, 19 new prisons opened.
The reality is that the state’s priorities have flipped. In 1979, 18 percent of our budget went to higher education, by 2021-22, it was 1.4 percent. You can argue that it was a simple one to one choice, understood. But if budgets are the statement of our priorities and our values, nothing screams louder than this.
But one thing I have been thinking about since I started pouring over this data—our focus on prisons has implications beyond just the criminal justice system.
In 1979 for example, there were just over 18,000 students enrolled at UC Davis. By the time, I got there in 1996 it was 23,000. By the fall, it could be over 40,000.
That means in just over 40 years, UC Davis has more than doubled its enrollment. One of the biggest issues locally has been student housing. Critics have pointed out that student housing has driven city housing shortages. And they have a point.
Up until the recent LRDP cycle, the university was only housing about 29 percent of its student enrollment on campus. That means as the university has steadily increased its enrollment, more and more students have been pushed into the community.
That has caused problems—something I think everything has agreed on. It has meant a lack of apartment vacancies, escalating rental costs, and more students jamming into smaller dwelling units. Ultimately the city has added several major student housing projects since 2016 while the university has added housing capacity—though some would argue, short of what they need to.
UC Davis may have grown more than many universities over the last several decades, but a similar story can be told across the board, and the reason for that is simple; enrollment has gone up and the number of college campuses has been relatively flat.
I am very strongly supportive of the mission of the universities in California. College degrees are a ticket out of poverty and into middle class status. Even UC Davis, located in a relatively homogeneous community like Davis, now boasts a tremendously diverse student body, serving scores of first-generation college students.
Data shows a widening gulf between the income for those with a college degree and those with only a high school degree.
But this growth comes with a cost and the funding of prisons comes with a big cost. The cost of education has skyrocketed. I remember what I paid my first quarter at Cal Poly in 1991. By the end of my time there, costs had gone way up. They are now even higher and many students are saddled with increasing amounts of college debt.
But perhaps even more than that, by failing to invest in higher education, we have also pushed enrollment growth into existing university campuses. That means at a place like UC Davis, even with additional housing being added at UC Davis on campus, 20,000 students will be living off campus—more than the total enrollment in 1979.
Imagine if the state had added 19 new campuses instead of pushing enrollment growth on existing campuses. Imagine if Davis were still at 23,000 as they were when I started Graduate School in 1996. We might not have a student housing crisis, because the growth would have been such that it would have been easy for existing campuses and communities to absorb.
Some might argue that the real problem is that the state has been willing to house those incarcerated rather than college students. That’s certainly one way to look at it.
But I think my bigger point is by forcing enrollment growth onto existing campuses rather than unto new campuses, it has created a housing problem because existing communities and college campuses both have to strain to find new housing rather than building new facilities that will be able to accommodate their own housing needs.
To put it another way, if we were still at 23,000, it wouldn’t matter much what percentage were on campus, because the student population wouldn’t have changed. It is the change, the increase year over year, that generates growth pressure, not the raw total.
Housing is a critical issue, but accommodating enrollment growth with new housing has proven tricky—and not just at UC Davis, but systemwide. There is a housing security issue for students across the entire system, including at the community colleges. Part of that problem seems to be attributable to failure of the state to continue to invest in higher education as it invests in prisons.