Lately, experts of the dismal science (better known as economists) say that our sinking economy seems to have finally bottomed out. So theoretically, there's nowhere to go but up.

Perhaps to capitalize on this glimpse of hope, our esteemed President Gutmann sent out a self-approving memo on Penn and the Economy in August. According to this memo, we're still cashing in on hundreds of millions in donations, increasing the financial-aid budget, making huge strides in campus construction and generally thriving. It appears Penn is so financially resilient that this economic downturn has hardly dented it.

But while Penn and other private universities have avoided the worst of the storm, our nation's best public-education system, the University of California, is about to take a turn for the worse - and it might affect all you non-Californians more than you think.

California's budget crisis this summer precipitated massive losses for higher education. Facing a $26 billion deficit, the state "solved" this problem by cutting spending left and right. In response to billion-dollar cuts in funding, the UC system raised student fees by 9 percent, reduced freshman enrollment by 6 percent and slashed millions of dollars from individual campus budgets.

Aside from cuts in access, the quality of education the UCs offer is also threatened.

"One of the psychology classes I signed up for has already been cancelled," said Janet Pan, a UC-Berkeley senior. "It's tough because I have to get all my credits in, and I needed that class for my major."

The UC campuses have collectively produced more Nobel laureates than any other university. And I've had more than a few professors at Penn who are UC-Berkeley alumni. But with mandatory furlough days for faculty, more students crammed into lecture halls and fewer courses offered, how can the system continue to produce the best of the best in academia?

It can't. Providing excellent education requires lots of money. It's no coincidence that the top 20 schools in the latest glossy U.S. News and World Report ranking of national universities are all private. Just scan over that handy little column of annual fees and tuition. All exceed $30,000 and most are closer to $40,000. That is, until you get to number 21, University of California-Berkeley. In-state tuition: $8,352. A world-class education at that price is simply not sustainable.

In direct contrast to the resilience of Penn, California's public universities have taken a debilitating blow. It's no secret that the Golden State's golden age is over, and the state's formerly thriving economy, which fueled the education system's prestigious reputation, has petered out.

So now, more than ever, the state needs all the benefits that a well-educated population can provide. College graduates typically make higher salaries, contribute more taxes and are less likely to need some kind of government welfare. More importantly, they've supplied much of the innovation that has set California apart for decades.

The losses of the California education system will be spread nationally, simply because the human capital its universities provide is pretty incredible. So perhaps it's time for California legislators to stop proposing taxes to prop up ridiculously inexpensive costs to students and to realize that a great education isn't cheap.

Raising tuition prices is a good first step. Taking more financial accountability for one's education would foster alma mater loyalty, prompt more donations and deepen the system's financial stability. And stronger financial stability allows individual institutions to fund need-based scholarships on a higher level, similar to how private universities operate. Scholarships could also be maintained more consistently, as they would be less privy to the whims of the state economy. Other excellent public schools in states with troubled economies - including Penn State - could also benefit from some of these measures.

It's not necessarily all doom and gloom for California's universities, even if the heyday of cheap public education has passed. Public schools should evolve with the times - and if our country's best want to sustain their reputations, they must rely less on a fluctuating tax base and more on individuals' pocketbooks.

Katherine Rea is a College junior from Saratoga, Calif. Her email address is rea@dailypennsylvanian.com

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