The current print edition of the American Prospect has a center pullout section on Inequality Goes to College. It’s worth reading, though hardly cheerful. And the Golden State is all over it.

From David Kirp, “Our Two-Class System,” A2-A4 of the November 2009 American Prospect, on A4:

“The extraordinary compact between state governments and their flagship universities” has been consigned to the junkyard of history, observes Mark Yudof. As the president of the University of California who earlier ran the university systems in Texas and Minnesota, he has as cleareyed a perspective on higher education as anyone. Fifty years ago, the Golden State linked two world class universities, Berkeley and UCLA, with a scattering of teachers’ colleges and agricultural schools, building a system of public higher education that has been a world model ever since. The state’s Master Place guarantees community college for every high school graduate; solid undergraduate teaching for the top 33 percent; and, for the brightest young Californians, an education at internationally renowned universities, including seven of the top 50 research institutions in the widely cited Jiao Tong Shanghai University 2008 world rankings. These universities have also been at the forefront of expanding access to low-income students. There are more recipients of federal Pell grants (awarded to students whose families earn less than $45,000 a year) at Berkeley than at the Ivy League campuses combined.

That’s one reason why Berkeley ranks first in Washington Monthly‘s 2009 university rankings, which emphasize social mobility, research, and service, and six of the ten UC campuses rank in the top 25…. As the editors note, “UC campuses enroll unusually large numbers of low-income students, while maintaining high graduation rates, generating billions of dollars in research funding, and sending a healthy number of students into service programs like the Peace Corps.”

Now this much-lauded system is on the verge of imploding, a casualty of shifting public priorities. In the past 30 years, as California’s population grew by more than 50 percent, the state has built just one new university campus but 22 prisons. Since 1990 state support for each UC student has been reduced by 40 percent. The 2008-2009 budget was cut by $813 million, with bigger losses anticipated next year. Consequently, community colleges and universities have had to limit enrollment, turning away thousands of students for lack of space and marking an end to the promise of universal access. The City College of San Francisco found itself peddling naming rights to courses, at $6,000 apiece, to keep them from being eliminated. Across the University of California system, professors are being lured away by offers from universities that smell blood in the water.

From Michael Hout, “Rationing College Opportunity,” A8-A10, on A8:

California led the nation on the way up and on the way down. Going up, California built 13 new universities in the 11 years from 1954 to 1965. The Master Plan for Higher Education set high standards: college degrees for one-third of the state’s young people and elite degrees from University of California campuses for the top one-eighth of each class. The state promised to pay the instructional and infrastructural costs. Tuition was free; students paid fees for room, board, and extracurricular services. Few states could match the scale and scope of California’s systems, but nearly every state provided more public higher education in 1975 than in 1955.

California’s Proposition 13, a 1978 state wide ballot initiative to roll back property taxes, sparked retrenchment. In 1979, a second proposition, known as the Gann Amendment, strictly limited spending. Thirty-seven other states, in some form or another, followed California’s lead. Overall revenue and spending limits held college enrollment growth to the same pace as population growth.

Before the tax revolt, legislative Republicans had been the universities’ champions. After Prop. 13 and Gann, most were committed to cutting state spending, even university spending. As ballot initiatives piled up, voters inadvertently crowded out higher-education spending with other spending mandates. Proposition 98 in 1988 gave K-12 education and community colleges budget guarantees that hurt state universities. Proposition 184 in 1994 mandated 25 years to life imprisonment for three-time offenders, sparking a prison boom. With total spending capped, California’s zero sum budget left higher education as one of the few categories open for discretionary cuts. The governor and legislature nearly always made them.

Although no other state enacted anything as binding as the limits of California’s Proposition 13 and Gann Amendment, only a few rapidly growing states, such as Florida, Texas, and Arizona, continued to expand public higher education. Elsewhere, expansion was off the table.