We keep hearing about the problems in our state’s higher education system: classrooms are too crowded, tuition is skyrocketing, and faculty members are expected to do more with fewer resources.

We know about these problems, but we don’t know exactly how bad they are or why they’ve happened. Yes, there is an economic recession. Yes, there is a state budget crisis. But even with that in mind, do we know how our limited resources are being allocated?

The Drain on Higher Education Funding

Now we have the data to understand more about our state’s priorities. On September 6, the nonprofit California Common Sense (CACS) released a new report comparing the state’s spending on higher education to spending on prisons. They reported that California is spending 1,370% more on prisons today compared to 1980.

Below is an NBC video summarizing its findings:

According to the report, the three largest recipients of State General Fund (GF) expenditures are:

• Public schools (K-12 and higher education) – more than 50 percent
• Health and human services – more than 30 percent
• Corrections – about 10 percent

When most General Fund expenditures go to education, human services and corrections, it’s important to know just how the money is divided amongst these services. The CACS report focused on higher education and corrections.

The data traces spending over a 30-year period – and the trends are worrisome. In 1980, almost 15 percent of the General Fund budget was apportioned for higher education. Now? It has declined to 9 percent.

And while the state corrections system received just 3 percent of the budget in 1980, its portion has steadily increased to its current level – 10 percent of the budget.

Yes, we know that the General Fund budget shrank from $129.7 billion in 2007 to $114.8 billion in 2008. But we should pay attention to the percentage of the allocation of these limited resources – and the fact that higher education regularly receives a smaller share of the budget is not a good sign.

The report also reported this troubling trend: accounting for inflation, the salaries of faculty in the CA higher education system have declined over the past decade. Declined. Faculty members are paid less while managing school systems with more students and greater need.

If we don’t act, the best professors will leave our state to take higher-paying teaching positions at other schools. We know how important good teachers are to a functioning educational system. And as I reported earlier, investing in higher education actually will help rebuild our economy while providing incredible opportunity to future generations.

Just as teachers stimulate students’ interest in learning, we hope that the data available on the CACS website will educate Californians to understand what’s happening in our state. The data is available in a number of sophisticated visualization formats that make viewing and understanding easier for all.

Data, Accountability and Government 2.0

I started watching the CACS data stream about a year ago – you can read about it here. Their emphasis on government transparency and accountability is a key aspect of Gov 2.0, which is what Reset San Francisco is all about. See a short video of the press conference from September 2011 here.

While I don’t always support all the conclusions CACS seems to draw from their data, at a fundamental level more data is a good thing. I believe government works better when government listens – and right now, the state is jeopardizing the future of the next generation, especially those families who are struggling with student debt. As the father of two young daughters, I understand how important this issue is. We need to adequately fund our schools and universities, and the CACS data challenges us to consider alternative policies to get our state on the right track.

With higher education, we seem to be losing sight of our past values. Help us remind our elected representative that higher education should be our top priority.