For some time now, I've been confused about something: why are universities in such dire straits financially when their enrollment is currently through the roof? I think I caught a glimpse of the answer recently.
I was visiting McMaster University, which is close enough for me to regularly make use of their libraries. It is a beautiful campus with lovely architecture. It often resembles an airport during the holidays, however, because it is so overcrowded. Sitting in the quad, I watch surging masses of jeaned and sweatclothed humanity rushing out of doors, cascading down stairways, and forcing themselves into overcrowded academic halls. And it suddenly occurs to me that universities across North America are dealing with the same basic conditions: a huge spike in enrollment because the economy was troubled and more jobs now require degrees. So, they all want to go to college and the colleges are letting them all in.
It might be uncharitable to speculate about if all these young people really belong in universities, and probably impossible to tell before enrollment given the massive grade inflation in high schools. The point is that they're here now. What never made sense to me was how universities could be strapped for cash when they have a surge in enrollment. But it made sense walking around McMaster, a university that's looking to get rid of its programs that don't attract enough "basic income units" (students) to be economically feasible. The fact is that having more students puts a great deal of pressure on the university structure. They have to build more buildings, hire more instructors, pave more parking lots; and all of this costs a great deal of money.
In the United States, public funding to higher education has been declining steadily for the last few decades. California, of course, has had to cut back quite a bit recently. The point is that when you have too many students and the public funding dries up, you're in a pickle. It's worth noting that the state universities in California likely have the same problem-having way too many staff members, secretaries, and admins on their payroll- that all state universities do. State U's tend to be like the DMV- anyone with connections and need of a job can be easily stuffed in there. But, some of the economic problems are unavoidable.
So, I guess the question for the US is whether or not they want to continue having public higher ed at all. There are a lot of glibertarians against public funding for universities, of course. The argument for it is that the experiment has actually been very successful since WWII: American universities have created a pretty impressive amount of social mobility in that country. They are expensive, however, and if the universities are going to come begging to the state treasurers, they're going to need to show that they can tighten their belts, even if it makes them one iota less competitive against some hypothetical university somewhere. Because, as is, the dams are going to burst.