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With the California budget crisis worsening, the University of California recently announced a 32% tuition hike, sending students to the streets in protest. Bloggers are weighing in on both sides of the conflict: a 32% increase is huge, but what else can the state do? The cost of a UC education is sure to shut out many prospective students. Beyond lamenting the hike, many writers are stepping back to remind readers of what's being lost, penning eulogies for the noble ideal of affordable public universities  Here's why they think the University of California needs to be saved:

  • 'A Nation Is Only as Good as Its Public Universities,' declares blogger Charles Lemos, calling the University of California at Berkeley "one of the great equalizers in California's meritocracy." The tuition increase, he says, is going to "effectively [end] the American dream for tens of thousands who will be priced out of the nation's largest higher education system." Lemos cannot accept this:
The total cost of sending every single public university undergraduate to college for a year, a group makes up 75 percent of the total college enrollment, was $39.36 billion in 2006-2007 according to the Council of Higher Education. That's not an insignificant number, but that's less than half the cost of the AIG bailout, or the cost of five months in Iraq (in October 2009, our bill for Iraq came to $7.3 billion). Just put that into consideration when you consider the billions more we are about to pump into Afghanistan. We can send our kids to school or we can send them to die. Choose wisely.
  • Our Public Universities as a Stand-In Mother Jones's Kevin Drum likewise makes the connection between a nation's education system and its overall health. "We used," he laments, "to have the world's greatest system of higher education and we thrived."
  • Universities as Hope¬† U.C. Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon argues that, since the American states "have no armies, universities and prisons are the most concentrated and material manifestations of state sovereignty itself." Spending on universities and prisons, he says, is an "index of the the relative strength of hope and fear in a polity." California's spending on the latter currently exceeds its spending on the former, and the financial crisis has curtailed state's formerly prodigious spending in both categories. Thus, the state "must now choose fear or hope for the future."
  • The Noble Cause of the Public University Atlantic correspondent Erik Tarloff saw the writing on the wall in July. Acknowledging that the California budget crisis would end up crippling a number of worthwhile state services, he nevertheless made a special case for the university. Its creation, he wrote, "embodied a genuinely noble democratic idea, one simultaneously embracing egalitarianism and excellence." The dream was to "establish an elite public university that could rival any private institution on the East Coast," and yet be "effectively tuition-free to any qualified California resident." Noting the "admirably American" nature of such an idea, he lamented the "tragedy of what's about to happen." Here was his prediction:
The damage to the university is likely to be irreversible. It will be less able to compete with other institutions in the hiring of distinguished faculty. Funding for complex research will be less accessible. Tuition fees will inevitably rise, as they've already risen, putting the place out of reach for the underprivileged. Staff will be let go. Programs will be zeroed out. No doubt Berkeley will remain an estimable institution, and a significant player in the intellectual and economic life of the state. But its days as one of the very greatest universities in the country are clearly numbered.

It's a great loss. Not merely for the university itself, nor even solely for the state of California. It's a loss for everyone who cherishes a certain notion of how higher education, and society itself, ought to function.

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