Recent California Higher Ed Headlines:

Orange County Register Nov. 23– Pay for retired CSU professors seen as ‘double dip’: Retirement has been good for Cal State Fullerton Professor xxx. As a full-time professor of mechanical engineering during 2008-09, xxx made $106,000 for teaching eight courses. Last year, after retiring, he made $146,600 – for teaching four classes at the same school.

L.A. Times Dec. 2 – UC regents approve pay hikes for 12 staffers: The administrators and attorneys received raises of between 6.4% and 23%. The action renews debate about efforts to retain important talent as the university considers further fee increases. UC President Mark Yudof said the raises were a necessity to keep good employees on board.

I made a crucial financial mistake early in my career – of not going directly into the secure embrace of government employment, where unlike in the private sector, there is no bottom-line governor on compensation and benefits. I could have had early retirement in my 50’s, lifetime health, accrued vacation/sick day payouts, and a guaranteed lifetime 6-figure pension (if I made it to the Exec level) equivalent to having a multi-million dollar nest egg.  Instead I’m currently leading a non-profit with an unmatched 401k plan. Quality people will work for less than what is offered in government jobs. Look at the number of applicants per job opening for public safety jobs. But the market does not govern government compensation.
I believe government subsidy of higher education costs for students who graduate and join the workforce, getting higher-paying jobs thanks to their subsidized college training, is a great social investment in multiple ways. But taxpayers can’t afford to annually chase absolutely unsustainable increases in cost, exemplified by stories like the above. The cost of higher ed is inexorably rising to a ceiling: the maximum total sum that the payers (government subsidy and parents and student loans) are evidently willing to pay — apparently a rather high number. Why wouldn’t UC fees for parents eventually rise to a private-school-like $25k-$40k per year? No reason; this is predictably where we are heading in California. At which point affordability for the middle class is laughable, and we are really screwed as a society.
As a beneficiary of a subsidized ($702/year) UC education in a more economically sound era, I believe that government subsidies to public higher ed should continue, that they should ensure that a college education is extremely affordable, but that they should come with thick strings attached on cost. I don’t believe that a quality undergraduate education can not be delivered at lower cost than now. The cost to the taxpayer, parent, and student should have a ceiling, indexed to grow no faster than inflation, reducing uncertainty. Universities could choose to take or leave this deal, and then figure out how to live within a fixed budget. Perhaps UCLA and UC Berkeley choose to forego subsidies — the private route — while many other campuses take this deal. These are smart people, and delivering a quality undergraduate education on a budget is not a moon shot.