As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across California, the state’s public universities and colleges transitioned from bustling campuses to virtually empty ones – sending their costs soaring and revenues spiraling.

University of California and California State University systems reported losses totaling more than $1.4 billion since the outbreak, mostly from the increased costs of online instruction and lost revenues from shuttered dorms, dining halls and other programs. California Community Colleges estimate they will lose $1 billion over the next year.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, faced with a $54 billion budget deficit, proposed a 10% cut in public higher education funding in his May budget proposal. The Legislature is considering a budget next week that will replace most of the higher education funds the governor cut. But the Legislature’s replacement funding is contingent upon the state getting billions in federal funds to offset its COVID-19 revenue losses.

Failure to get those federal funds and any further reductions in public higher education threaten to rob a vital engine of the state’s economy of the fuel it needs to help California overcome the pandemic’s economic devastation. The state’s public higher education system is a key driver of the state’s economic success and essential to its ability to respond to COVID-19 and future pandemics, as well as other disasters.

One in every 10 employees in California is a graduate of CSU, with more than half of alumni staying in California and contributing to the state’s economy. UC is the state’s third-largest employer and is responsible for sparking statewide innovation, with an average of five inventions per day. UC is also the world’s largest public research university system, providing a health care system that is saving lives and a research enterprise that is seeking cures and a vaccine for COVID-19.

California Community Colleges educate those on the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19. They train 70% of the state’s nurses and 80% of California’s firefighters, law enforcement personnel and emergency medical technicians.

Before COVID-19 destroyed lives and eliminated jobs throughout the state, public higher education was just beginning to emerge from the financial tsunami of the Great Recession.

From 2008 to 2012, state investments in public higher education plummeted, leading UC and CSU to double tuition, lay off and furlough staff and defer new construction and maintenance. California’s Community Colleges also sustained $1.5 billion in funding reductions, which resulted in about 600,000 students losing access to higher education.

State leaders had sought to restore funding in recent years. But California’s per-student funding is still far behind where it was in the mid-1970s. At the same time, California is estimated to be about 1 million college graduates short of what state employers will need over the next decade – if it doesn’t produce more college graduates.

Now, with COVID-19 ravaging their finances, UC reports it lost $1.1 billion in March and April alone. CSU, which has lost $337 million already from COVID-19, recently announced that most of its fall semester classes will be online, meaning more losses of revenue from dorms, dining and its other “enterprise” programs. UCs and Community Colleges may be mostly online as well.

When California adopted the Master Plan for Education in 1960, it made a promise to make higher education accessible to all. The state is at risk of breaking that promise, if it cannot provide the revenues to make up for the devastating financial losses COVID-19 is creating in our state’s public higher education system. The state’s recovery from COVID-19’s economic destruction will also be slower, and the future health of Californians will be at greater risk.

As alumni of our state’s public higher education system, we call on our leaders to invest in California’s future by investing in its world-class institutions of higher education. Doing so will keep public higher education accessible to Californians looking to improve their economic well-being. It will hasten our state’s recovery, and it will ensure we are ready to respond to future pandemics and disasters.


Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine co-chair the California Coalition for Public Higher Education. Ackerman is a Republican and former California state senator and Assemblymember from Orange County, Levine is a Democrat and a former member of the U.S. Congress and state Assemblymember from Los Angeles, They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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