The Worst Deficit in California

For all the talk about the current $20 billion budget deficit, a much more-serious deficit looms: By 2025, California is projected to have one million fewer college-educated workers than its economy will require.

The Public Policy Institute of California arrived at that projection on the basis of two other estimates. By 2025, 41 percent of jobs in California are expected to require at least a bachelor’s degree. But, if current trends hold, only 35 percent of adults will have a bachelor’s degree. In fact, California lags most other states in the percentage of adults with a college degree.

Together these two deficits – the future shortage of college-educated workers and the today’s budget deficit – represent a terrible Catch 22 for California.

To fix the deficit of the college-educated, the state needs to start educating more people for more years today. But the actions required to do that -- including boosting enrollment in public universities, permitting more transfers from community colleges to Cal State and UC schools, and increasing remedial education for college-bound high school students -- cost money.

About $1.6 billion per year in today’s dollars, according to a new PPIC report.

And the state doesn’t have enough money. If anything, California is moving the other direction – cutting nearly $1 billion in aid to higher education in the last year. It will take a miracle to avoid more cuts because, under California’s budget system, universities are one of the few major state expenses that do not have special protection through voter-approved initiatives. (K-12 education, prisons, transportation and various other smaller programs all have such protection).

Of course, to fix its persistent budget problems, the state needs to produce more jobs, more economic growth and more tax revenues. None of those things can happen if there aren’t enough college-educated workers.

And because of California’s size and young population, this is a problem not only for the state but also for the country. President Obama has set a goal of making the U.S. the world leader in college completion by the end of this decade. But that goal is mathematically impossible without an enormous increase in the number of college graduates in California – an increase the state needs but can’t afford.

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