ANY student knows that a fuzzy concept is easier to grasp with the help of a vivid illustration. Last week, every student in California's state universities - and everyone else worried about the higher price of higher education here - got such a vivid illustration in the form of a newspaper headline.
"Believe it: Harvard cheaper than Cal State," the San Jose Mercury News reported.
Unfortunately, readers had no trouble believing that attending a California public university is less and less affordable for the average young person. They'd just never viewed it in quite such an eye-catching way before.
If the news that attending, say, Cal State East Bay in Hayward now costs more than attending Harvard comes at a shock, well, good. Maybe the state needs to be jolted into considering new ways to deliver affordable education.
For years, kids with good grades and solid aptitude-test scores knew they could go to UC and CSU universities. It wasn't the Ivy League, but it was a first-rate learning and tuition was relatively cheap.
Nothing less would do in a state whose huge, modern, technology-rich economy needed all the finely honed brains it could employ.
All that's changed for California state universities in the past decade is the cost and quality of the education.
The recession's impact on the tax base has forced the state to cut back on its support for the universities. In one result, tuitions have had to rise, pushing the system over the tipping point where it is funded more by students' fees than by state money. In another, campuses have been forced to cut back on class offerings, faculties and upkeep.
Speaking of vivid illustrations: There were reports last year of San Francisco State students wearing hats and gloves in lectures because the halls were so poorly heated, and students having to sit on a classroom floor while the professor held a lottery to assign the few available desks. At Cal State Northridge, the freshman class was larger than ever last year, but reductions in course offerings mean a similar fight for chairs and individual attention.
The cutbacks mean it's harder for students to get the classes they need to graduate in four years, so they're not only paying higher fees but paying them for longer.
Those fees? According to the Bay Area News Group, which figured out the California-vs.-Harvard comparison, a family of four with an income of $130,000 a year should expect to pay nearly $24,000 for a Cal State freshman's tuition, on-campus room and board, supplies and other expenses.
Although Harvard's advertised annual tuition is $36,305, the family described above would actually end up paying $17,000 to send an ultra-high-achieving son or daughter to the United States' most prestigious university.
The reason is that Harvard charges higher tuition to richer families so that it can offer game-changing financial aid to middle-class and poor students. That's a judgment call Harvard can afford to make, being a private institution unaffected by the shrinking tax base and blessed with lush endowments.
Is there some version of this strategy that public universities can employ? This page has said before that California should weigh ideas such as varying tuition at CSU and UC campuses - allowing, say, UC Berkeley and San Diego State to charge more than less in-demand locations. Opponents of the proposal say it would ruin the reputations of the "cheaper" campuses and destroy the egalitarian spirit of California's two university systems.
But already, if the CSU-vs.-Harvard price check is any indication, something of that spirit is already crumbling.
The students who marched in Sacramento last week to demand an end to state funding cuts and tuition hikes support taxing millionaires to pay for higher education. They'll have to get in line behind those who favor taxing millionaires to pay for K-12 education.
It's easy to say the state's universities must eliminate overspending such as exorbitant salaries for top administrators. Reining in all of those salaries, though, won't solve the problem.
Last year, a study determined that in the next decade and a half, California will produce 1 million fewer college graduates than the economy demands, portending a further spiral for the tax base and state education funding.
Something has to change, and here's hoping that Harvard headline will be the impetus.
Meanwhile, more of California's brightest kids presumably will be going to Harvard. Maybe they'll learn the answers there.