Cuts are fast eroding California's once-vaunted system of public colleges and universities. Judicious change can address new realities while affirming the enduring goals of the state's master plan.
LA Times Editorial
December 28, 2009
Great beaches, a gentle climate and the best system of public higher education in the country, maybe the world. California is famous for all three, but what it deserves abundant praise for is the last of those. How long it will continue to earn that praise is another matter. The state's visionary Master Plan for Higher Education, the engine that for years drove California toward educational leadership, and, as a result, economic leadership, is about to turn 50. It is not aging well.
The plan itself isn't to blame so much as the lack of money to carry it out. Right now, the dismal economy is driving deep cuts in higher education. But California has been giving short shrift to its public colleges and universities for years now, inching away from the promise of equal and affordable access based on merit.
Under the 1960 plan, the University of California, a collection of elite research universities, was expected to provide a top-tier undergraduate and graduate-school education for the top 12.5% of the state's students. California State University was the workhorse that all students in the top third of the state's high-school graduates could attend. And everyone would have virtually free access to the community colleges, where students could receive vocational training, life-enrichment courses or an associate's degree that would give them a boost into a four-year college.
But that has changed. Tuition of more than $10,000, recently approved by the UC Board of Regents, isn't affordable for many families, and even higher fees have been levied on various professional schools, including the ones that train social workers, who earn mediocre salaries that make it hard to repay big student loans. CSU recently warned that it would not be able to accept 45,000 eligible students who apply next year, and San Diego State announced for the first time that it could not accept all of the eligible local students. Everyone is still welcome at the community colleges, which raised fees slightly -- but just try enrolling in the necessary classes. At De Anza College in the Silicon Valley, close to 10% of students this fall were unable to enroll in any classes, and a third were shut out of at least one class. The college had been forced to cut 300 courses from its schedule.
For years, reports from various organizations have warned that the master plan would be endangered if the state didn't change course. UC would lose its prestige, eligible students would go without a college education. Now the state is past the warning stage. Public higher education in California is being constricted in ways that make it hard to recognize compared with what it was just a decade ago.
This month, a joint legislative committee began a series of hearings on the master plan, looking at whether modifications are needed either to the initial vision or to the three-tiered system of higher education. The first hearing made it clear that there is enormous opposition to making any substantial changes in the master plan itself, especially trimming its ambitions in reaction to the state's current financial crisis. But even if the master plan is not officially revamped in any major way, Californians cannot ignore that it is undergoing a de facto rewrite. Low cost, universal access, top educational and research quality -- these three basic underpinnings are eroding fast.
This is happening just as officials elsewhere in the world are looking to mimic the California model. Western Europe is considering the creation of an open-access college program; China is planning to open several UC-type systems. Chinese leaders aren't doing this as a gift to their young people; they recognize that affordable, top-level college education pays off in a robust economic engine and more stable and well-compensated jobs.
An educated and capable citizenry tends to be more involved in civic life and have lower rates of crime, teenage pregnancy and other costly social problems. And a system that offers access to higher education fulfills the consummate American dream that anyone has the opportunity to achieve great things in this country -- an especially potent message in a state with so many immigrant students.
College officials bear some of the responsibility for their financial troubles. Both CSU and UC, especially the latter, have been rightly criticized in recent years for giving lavish and unnecessary perks to various administrators. Officials at both systems struck an unwise side deal with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004, in which they agreed to raise fees appreciably and lower admissions in exchange for six years of steadily increasing funding. They received three years of that increase before cuts set in again.
master plan would be endangeredThe state might not be able to live up to the master plan for the next few years, but it should be plotting a return to that vision. An April report by the Public Policy Institute of California warned that the state was in danger of being close to 1 million college graduates short of what the labor market will demand in 2025.
At a time of severely limited funding, then, what can California do to maximize its resources and maintain the luster of its higher education system? Here are some areas for consideration: PRODUCTIVITY. Individual campuses in the Cal State system already are examining whether to close some smaller departments. According to CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed, the recreational studies program at Dominguez Hills has graduated only four students in the last two years.
At the same time, CSU should be coordinating the closures so that, to the extent possible, at least one campus within commuting distance offers the less-popular majors. Cal State students are often commuters who depend on living at home to make college affordable. FEES. Neither UC nor CSU can continue with the kinds of disastrous tuition increases that were slapped on students this year. A recent survey found that the top reason students drop out of college is the cost.
Fees should be rolled back as soon as state funding allows, and a schedule of predictable fee increases instituted for future years so families can plan college savings accordingly. DROPOUTS: Leaders of both the community college and CSU systems must make reducing their dropout rates a higher priority. Only 1 in 4 community college students aiming toward transfer to a four-year college actually fulfills that ambition, and only half of Cal State students earn a bachelor's degree within six years. Not only does this deprive the state of a more educated population, but it also wastes public money.
CSU and UC also should be pushing students to complete their degrees within four years. Full-time students should have to apply to attend beyond 4 1/2 years and provide a compelling reason why this is necessary. Their fees should be raised to out-of-state tuition levels except in rare circumstances. COURSE AVAILABILITY. To graduate students on time, colleges must offer the necessary courses. As much as we hate to consider narrowing the scope of the master plan, both UC and CSU should consider temporarily tightening admissions of California students to slightly below their historic percentages. With adequate funds to educate all enrolled students, the four-year schools can move students through the system more quickly and make room for other students. Future funding should be tied to how well they do this. COMMUNITY COLLEGES. The community colleges have too many missions to fulfill -- vocational, remedial and continuing education, recreational courses and preparation for four-year colleges. They should continue to offer open access, but for the time being should cut back on continuing education and recreational courses or charge the full cost of such classes, targeting their resources toward students seeking a certificate or associate's degree.
Of the three public college systems, the community college system is the one that should raise its fees substantially. This year, the Legislature raised fees from $20 a credit to $26 -- about $100 per course. Even if the Legislature were to double the fees, the community colleges would still be among the least expensive in the nation and easily affordable to most middle-class families -- less than $1,000 a year. A new federal tuition tax credit would reimburse many families for the full cost of each year's fees and books. A portion of the additional revenue could be used to offset fees for low-income students. The added money would allow for better counseling and more course offerings so students could finish their education sooner -- ultimately saving more money. FEDERAL FUNDING. President Obama has talked frequently about the importance of getting more students prepared for college. But the bigger problem right now is students who can't afford a seat in a college to start with. Federal stimulus funding and increases in Pell grants helped California's public colleges survive this year. Lobbying for continued and expanded infusions of federal money is needed. Investing in California's once-shining plan for public higher education is one of the best ways to provide this nation with a college-educated population.