From where I sit - Not all the leaves are brown

September 22, 2011

AB 131, the second half of the proposed legislation popularly known as the California Dream Act, is currently awaiting final ratification. If approved, it will give undocumented Californian residents access to financial aid to use its public higher education system. A state Senate committee has estimated the initial cost of the programme at $40 million (£25 million); in other words, just over a dollar for each documented Californian.

It is a bold move. California is broke and its education system is in the midst of huge cuts. How can legislators justify such generosity to border-hoppers?

For those of us looking on from the other side of the world, California's plan is awe-inspiring. Like China's massification of higher education over the past two decades, California's higher education dream is something that the world needs to be kept alive. California's taxpayers - and California's creditors - are stumping up, but undocumented Californians are not the only beneficiaries. We all are.

California largely invented the orderly roll-out of universal higher education. The 1960 Master Plan guided by Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California of the day, set out the linkages within a comprehensive system. Then and now, the system comprises research institutions at the top, including the University of California, Berkeley and UC, Los Angeles; the California State network providing mainly undergraduate and professional education; and public community colleges offering access and vocational pathways.

The California public system has been so good that - with the exceptions of Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology, which began as engineering schools - private universities have found it difficult to challenge its upper echelon for cachet. As governor, Ronald Reagan - who was, to be fair, more against radicalism in the universities than against their excellence - tried and failed to control the state system.

That system is now in crisis; even so, cutbacks did not stop Berkeley and UCLA from remaining in the top 20 of the 2010-11 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. A full-service public system, where anyone really can get a leg up or a second chance, may have been the single greatest innovation in 20th-century higher education.

If California cannot offer its benefits to all its people (and the undocumented are gradually starting to be counted), the promise of the California dream seems seriously diminished. And if the Dream Act makes the US side of California's borders more attractive to the world's huddled masses, that may be the price of the dream.

When it comes to international students, the California system's top tier has long been more chooser than beggar. (That may have to reverse, which is something the rest of the English-speaking world knows all about, namely short-term market-rate cash flow precluding too much concern about long-term reputation.) In future, affluent overseas students may be indirectly subsidising classmates who gave immigration officers a much wider berth.

Whether at the Hollywood box office or at Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, someone has always had to pay for California dreaming, one way or another. There is understandably a wide variety of views among Californians on whether public monies should be earmarked for undocumented residents. A view from beyond the Golden State, however, is that the symbolism of the Dream Act in the present wintry financial climate is one of the more genuinely inspiring stories the place has managed in some time.

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