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University of California system in the hands of voters

Students walk near Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA on April 23, 2012 in Los Angeles, Calif. California Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to raise taxes in November, with part of the revenue going to pay for public education in the state, including for the University of California system.

Kai Ryssdal: The state of California has finished dealing with about half of its big fiscal problem. Last week, after much wrangling, legislators did manage to pass a budget, although Gov. Jerry Brown still has to sign the thing.

Then there's the small matter of taxes. Gov. Brown wants to raise them. He's got a proposition on the November ballot for voters to consider. Money that will go in part to pay for public education out here, higher education included -- assuming the ballot measure passes.

Mark Yudof is the president of the University of California system -- that's UCLA, U.C. Berkeley and eight other campuses. Mr. Yudof, welcome to the program.

Mark Yudof: Thank you Kai, glad to be here.

Ryssdal: So the state of California now has a budget on time, for the first time in a while. What happens, what does it mean now for the University of California system?

Yudof: Well I think there's going to be additional deliberations still. If this budget passes and if the November ballot measure passes, I think it means relatively good news for the University of California. If it goes bad -- that is, if somehow the budget goes awry or if the voters don't approve the ballot measure to raise revenues -- it would be pretty disastrous for the University of California.

Ryssdal: You're betting then, on Californians being willing tax themselves to improve the state of higher education?

Yudof: I am placing that bet, but I don't really have that much of a choice. If we go the other way, then tuition is going to be going up, and I think we're going to have some major issues in terms of access and quality.

Ryssdal: You mention problems of access, and with tuition rising and class size increases and offerings being cut, how do you keep -- since this is your job -- how do you keep the University of California a place where low- and middle-income kids can go to get a high-quality education?

Yudof: You know, tuition is $12,000 a year. That's the sticker price. The average tuition actually paid is $4,400 a year. Over 50 percent of our students pay no tuition at all. What I'm saying really is we can continue to take care of the low-income. I'm more worried about the middle class. We need to get this right, because at the end of the day, the problem's going to not so much for the families making under $60,000, but maybe it's going to be for the families making between, say, $90,000 and $150,000, where they're not wealthy enough to just write a check and not lose sleep over it, and they really don't qualify for all those financial aid programs.

Ryssdal: When you're sitting in meetings with the governor's policy advisers, his education team, do you guys ever consider just scrapping the whole thing and trying to come up with some new models for higher education? I mean, the University of California way back when led the way in higher education.

Yudof: We are looking at those new models. You're perfectly right. We have an e-learning pilot, so you may find 10 years from now that a more significant portion of our curriculum is offered online. We lower our marginal costs, we accommodate more students. I'm visiting with the major corporations in California -- they need to step up. We need $350 million in the next few years in scholarships. God knows, the words "university" and "efficiency" never really went together in the same sentence. And what we're trying to do is to cut our costs. As I look at the prices and so forth, I agree -- the financial model's pretty much at the end of its line.

Ryssdal: Do you think everybody should go to college? I mean, is higher education for everybody?

Yudof: I don't think everyone should go. I think there are questions of people's aptitude and there are questions of people's interests. I'm a big believer in community colleges -- maybe you can transfer to a four-year. If you don't want to transfer to a four-year, that's fine with me. But I'm also a big believer in everyone gets a chance.

Ryssdal: Do you ever wish you could just go back and be a law professor?

Yudof: There are days when I wish I could go back and be a law professor. I remember reading an article today which asks: 'Can anyone really be a successful president of the United States?' There seems to be a certain amount of pessimism. And you could say the same thing about university presidents, particularly in the public sphere. It's very hard when all you're doing is trying to keep the whole operation together, to feel good about the impact you've had. But times will get better and 50 years from now, it'll still be the great University of California.

Ryssdal: Mark Yudof is the president of University of California. Thanks very much for your time, sir.

Yudof: Thank you Kai, enjoyed it.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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