California continues to flourish and higher education is the secret sauce that nourishes the state’s economy. Our world class academic institutions are at the center of the innovation, creativity, technological advances and biomedical breakthroughs that make California a national and international pacesetter. It is no wonder that the Golden State has the world’s fifth-largest economy.

The backbone of California’s “brainpower advantage” is the state’s unmatched public higher education system that encompasses the University of California, California State University and a statewide network of community colleges. The challenge is to keep this system on top of its game, while competing with other state priorities.

The case for investment in public higher education is strong. California community colleges are the largest provider of workforce training in the nation. CSU is the largest source of the state’s diverse workforce. For every dollar California invests in students who graduate from college, there is a $4.50 return on that investment.

In addition to its vital role in educating the scientists, engineers, physicians, educators, business executives and other professional and cultural leaders, the University of California is a research enterprise that is second to none. UC has produced more than 1,800 inventions. There are more than 10,000 active patents based on UC research and more than a thousand new companies have been founded as a result of UC patents. From critical medical advances to new horizons for agriculture, UC is contributing mightily to California’s economy and to the health and well-being of millions around the world.

Much of the success of UC, CSU and the community colleges flows from the wisdom of state leaders who had the vision to invest in building the world’s best public higher education system. But as the state has faced major fiscal challenges over the years, Sacramento’s commitment to higher education faltered. Per student state support for UC and CSU remains dramatically lower than it was two decades ago. This has forced tuition increases and handicapped the systems’ ability to accommodate qualified students. Fortunately, that tide has begun to turn. Per student state funding for community colleges is now at an all-time high and recent state budgets have begun to restore funding for UC and CSU.

Higher education funding, however, is nowhere near where it needs to be. The Public Policy Institute of California has projected that the California workforce will need more than a million additional college graduates within a decade. More and more, productive careers depend on education beyond high school. College graduate earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more during their careers than high school graduates. Higher education is a key to opportunity and to maintaining a dynamic economy.

In many respects, public higher education is at a turning point in California. With a new governor, there will be a fresh opportunity to address the state’s commitment to higher education, and to construct a long-term funding mechanism that will sustain and grow the system’s ability to serve the young Californians who are the state’s future, and to serve as the linchpin of California’s economic success.

Given the programs and interests that will compete for every budget dollar, it is imperative that those who recognize the vital role of higher education step up to the plate and advocate for making higher education a top state priority. That particularly includes the business community that must make this issue front and center.

Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine co-chair the California Coalition for Public Higher Education, a political action committee. Ackerman is a former member of the California State Senate California State Assembly; Levine is a former member of the U.S. Congress and California State Assembly.