Investing in Higher Education Reaps Big Rewards

The following op-ed from Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla was published in the U-T San Diego on April 3, 2015.

California Reaps ‘Excellent Return’ on Investment in Public Universities

Among recent public discourse about our state’s investment in the University of California, a thoughtful legislator proposed that the state add another campus to the 10-campus system. Using the example of Caltech, he suggested that a new campus focus on science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the arts. The idea is laudable – as it was some 50 years ago, when legislators, scientists and scholars agreed to establish UC San Diego.

The then-seventh member of the UC system, in fact, was envisioned as a bold, experimental campus of graduate students engaged in science and research. As the campus grew and matured, we welcomed undergraduate students, and began to offer a well-rounded and more widely challenging academic experience.

Historian Nancy Scott Anderson, in “An Improbable Venture,” writes that our relatively young public enterprise “is recognized as the best institution of higher education established in the United States since the Second World War.” Founded as a graduate school focused on research during the Cold War science boom, she says, UC San Diego “has matured into a well-rounded campus where fine arts, humanities, and health and social sciences flourish.”

As a public research university, our charge is to not only advance knowledge and produce knowledgeable and contributing citizens, but also cultivate inventors, spark new businesses, create jobs, and serve as powerful economic engines of our local and state economies.  Our mission enables us to educate our state’s youth, create a skilled workforce and re-pay our fellow citizens’ investment through economic development.

As chancellor, I talk to people from all walks of life, from every part of the state, and I hear their praise and their complaints. Most acknowledge that UC San Diego and our sister campuses are world-renowned; that medical, engineering, and scientific advances improve their lives; that university-nurtured arts inspire them; humanities and social sciences enable them to understand the context of our past and present; and they are grateful for our work on their behalf.

Some are more bottom-line-oriented – “What have you done for me lately, and what did it cost?”

Right now, Californians contribute about seven percent of UC San Diego’s nearly four-billion-dollar budget, a percentage that has fallen steadily over the last decade as the state continues to “dis-invest” in higher education.

Many of those I talk to are surprised, if not astonished, by this low number. Many believe that because we are “public,” we are 100 percent supported by Californians’ dollars, or close to that. But the state’s contribution to our enterprise has indeed fallen to very modest, and declining, levels.

The very welcome public money we do receive enables us to leverage our university into a $4-billion enterprise.  In spite of the reduced investment, we have been able to maintain our top world stature by creating alternative sources of revenue and collaborative partnerships.  All the rest we compete for in the form of federal and state grants, income from patents, philanthropy, and other contributions. 

UC San Diego brings in more than $1 billion in (very competitive) research funding every year. Beyond the discoveries and breakthroughs that result – and the more than 28,000 taxpayers we employ – we also help create new businesses, large and small. We are your neighbors, active in every community, volunteer organization, and school; and we are your customers.

Along with our spending and regional purchases, San Diego itself benefits from more than 200 active UC San Diego spin-off companies with nearly 30,000 employees (and taxpayers), for a combined economic boost of over $30 billion for San Diego County.

Californians’ seven-percent contribution to our budget is drawing, in strictly financial terms, an excellent return on investment. Higher education’s purposes and costs will always generate lively and useful debate, but I hope my fellow residents of California will be persuaded that your investments come back to you many times over.

Every thriving metropolis across America has major universities helping to fuel economic innovation and growth, not only with ideas, tools, medicines, technologies and spin-offs, but also with equally necessary educated citizens on whom our civil society and economic enterprise depend.

While I agree that our country could benefit from more research universities driving economic growth and global competitiveness, first we must ensure that our current universities receive sound and predictable investments commensurate with the prosperous and promising future that Californians – and all Americans – deserve.