Susan Eggman and Domonique Jones

Credit: Veronica Adrover/UC Merced

UC Merced undergraduate Domonique Jones, right, shares her story with Assemblymember Susan Eggman during UC Day.

The transformative power of a college education was on full display at the state's capitol Tuesday (March 10), as more than 170 students, parents, alumni and other University of California supporters met with lawmakers to talk about how investment in UC benefits California and its students.

Delegates — representing each of UC's 10 campuses — spent UC Day meeting with members of the legislature to share personal stories of how a UC education had bettered their lives.

"I'm here because of how much I believe in UC and all it stands for," said Domonique Jones, a junior at UC Merced who is studying political science. “My mother, a single mom, didn't have anything she could pay for college, but by the grace of UC Merced I was able to get enough (financial aid) to pay for my education."

Like Jones, half of all UC students have their tuition fully covered through programs such as UC’s Blue and Gold opportunity plan, which covers all tuition for students from families with household incomes of $80,000 or less.

“Blue and Gold made college possible for me,” Jones said.

"A UC education has an enormous impact not just for an individual but for an entire community,” said Josefina Canchola, a UC Riverside graduate in sociology who grew up in a low-income community where few people went to any college, let alone an elite institution like UC. “When I went to college, the other kids on the block saw me and said, 'If she can do it, I can do it.'"

By investing in students and their educations, the state reaps major returns in terms of workforce development and the income mobility of its residents, visitors told members of the legislature.

Yet the state invests far less in the university today than it did two decades ago.

Making higher education a budget priority

In inflation-adjusted dollars, state funding for UC is at the same level today as it was in 1997 — yet UC educates 75,000 more students than it did then. That's the statistical equivalent of adding an additional UCLA and UC Berkeley with the same amount of money.

Against the backdrop of flat or declining state funds, California undergraduate applications have continued to rise for the past 11 years. UC officials say that expanding California enrollment is a top priority and have asked the state for additional funds to help meet student demand.

It is no longer financially sustainable to continue to add students without additional support from the state, university officials say. 

Discussions are now underway with state leaders about UC's budget plan, including whether the state can afford to cover the cost of a modest tuition increase that, together with a modest boost in state funds, would help UC increase California enrollment and invest in academic quality.

“I have been encouraged by recent public statements by Senate Pro Tem President de Leon, Assembly Speaker Atkins and Republican Leader Olsen about making higher education a priority,” UC President Janet Napolitano told delegates.

Napolitano also has been meeting one-on-one with Gov. Jerry Brown, and will report on the status of those discussions at next week’s regents meeting in San Francisco.

The personal case for investing in UC

Meanwhile, in meetings with legislators and their staffs on Tuesday, UC’s advocates made a more personal case for the value of investing in public higher education.

“As a Ph.D. in bioengineering and agriculture, I’ll be contributing to startups, to industry and to growing California's economic success,” said UC Davis’ Erica Vonasek,  who was among the first in her family to attend college. “I'll be a better contributor to California because of my UC education."

Vonasek has reason to be hopeful about her future earnings. Half of low-income students who graduate UC and enter the California workforce — as 70 percent do — earn more within five years of graduating than their families did when they entered UC.

Advocates also spoke of the benefits to the state of UC research, which has made California a hub of innovation and cultural capital. 

UC advances in health, agriculture, technology and other areas of the economy have produced jobs for millions of Californians, not only those with UC degrees.

“The education I got at UC made it possible to take on any challenge I wanted to,” said John Skhal, who graduated in 1971 from the UCSF School of Pharmacy. He launched a pharmacy benefits company that employs 135 people. More recently, he has hatched two new pharmaceutical start-ups. 

Skhal said he worried that shrinking state support will jeopardize not only students’ education, but also the jobs, discoveries and inventions that keep the California economy thrumming.

Others voiced similar thoughts.

“Thanks to UC, I’ve been exposed to amazing opportunities, not only in engineering, but in entrepreneurship as well,” said Janna Rodriquez, a UC Merced alumna with a degree in mechanical engineering. She is now a Ph.D. student at Stanford University focused on developing micro-electronic sensing devices, and also runs her own business, a successful taqueria in downtown Merced.

“UC exposed me to a whole world I didn’t even know existed,” she said.