A Modest Proposal for Financing Higher Education in California

juvenile detentionTough times, as the saying goes, don’t last, but tough people do. Necessity, as we are also reminded, is the mother of invention.

Keeping these bits of sage advice in mind shows us a brilliantly simple (or, simply brilliant) way to provide our state’s higher education system with all the financial support it needs. This implementation will also allow us to make some lemonade from our state budget, a lemon by almost any measure.

The brilliantly simple/simply brilliant solution: re-designate our CSU and UC campuses as prisons. Since a goodly number of the current student population regards them as such anyway, it should not be too big a stretch.

And before the scoffers in the audience have scoffed this modest proposal away, please consider the following numbers:

The State of California currently operates 33 State Prisons, housing a total population of about 171,000 inmates, on each of whom we spend a yearly average of $55,000.

California also currently operates 23 State University campuses with a total enrollment of about 430,000 students; and 10 University of California campuses, with a total enrollment of about 220,000 students, on whom we spend a yearly average of $10,000. By cosmic coincidence, this number of campuses exactly matches the number of prisons.

Since 1980, we have built 23 new prisons (by another cosmic coincidence, the total number of all the Cal State University campuses), at a cost of $250 million to $350 million each. In the same time period we have built one CSU campus and one UC campus.

Obviously, building and populating institutions of incarceration is more important to us than building and populating institutions of higher learning. The arguments about which is more desirable wax long, loud, and acrimonious, and are not the topic here.

What is the topic here is blindingly simple (or, simply blinding): financial support for our higher education system is far more difficult to get than financial support for our prison system, and there’s a lot less of it when you do get it. Ergo, we perform the simple conversion and nearby Cal State Fullerton, for example, re-opens as North Orange County Adult Correctional Facility

Campuses in line for conversion can be designated Level I Facilities, which the state defines as “Open dormitories without a secure perimeter;” no fences or guard towers. Not having to string electrified barbed wire and build guard towers will cut down on the conversion expenses, since it’s a pretty safe bet that most of the now-inmates who leave in the afternoon will be back the next day.

This only leaves small details, like salaries. CSU Presidents make about twice as much as prison wardens. But wardens only have to supervise about 5,000 inmates who desperately want out as soon as possible, compared to a CSU President with 30+ thousand students who have exactly the same goal. So the salary difference shouldn’t be a show stopper.

john-macmurray-1.jpgBut wait! as they say. There’s more! When this idea proves to be the inevitable, runaway success it obviously will be, we can follow up and re-designate our K-12 schools as Juvenile Correction Facilities. VIOLA! All the resources we could want for them, as well.

See how easy that was? Problem solved, case closed, and we move on to the next agenda item.

by John MacMurray

John MacMurray teaches 7th grade language arts and social studies at Ladera Vista Junior High in Fullerton.

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