A Vision for Higher Education

It's time to stop fighting battles of the past

Back Commentary Jul 31, 2011 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

The headlines are the same in nearly every state: massive cuts in higher education budgets, faculty and staff layoffs, tuition hikes and students locked out of a college education because of rising costs. Our nation’s economic distress is taking a huge toll on our colleges, universities and future work force.

Here in California the crisis takes on even larger dimensions because of our partisan politics and severe budget problems and partly, I believe, because of the state’s famed Master Plan for Higher Education.

Let’s recall that the plan set a new national standard when it was enacted in 1960, establishing nearly universal higher education with a three-tiered system of two-year community colleges plus four-year teaching and research universities. Back then, the state could promise essentially free community college education and small fees at the University of California and California State campuses.

Too many of us — legislators, educators, community leaders — are still looking back and bemoaning those good ol’ days, instead of looking at today’s reality and a new vision for the future. As a result, the master plan itself sometimes gets in the way of realistic thinking about much-needed change in our higher education system and the ways we fund it.

For example, because of the plan’s focus on three distinct types of schools, our state has not done the kind of integrated planning and coordination across institutions that leading states are doing to improve system performance. We have no strategic plan for higher education, few consistent standards across institutions and no system for improving performance.

Let’s face facts: The economy, the work force and our student populations are all very different today than they were a half-century ago. Instead of feeling locked into a plan that may no longer work, instead of feeling immobilized by the state’s ongoing financial problems and legislative logjams, we need to get real about the current and future state of higher education in California.

That starts with getting real about how we fund higher education. State support (here and elsewhere) for higher education began declining during the 1980 recession and hasn’t stopped. We will never again be able to offer free or almost-free education to every qualified student in our growing population, which is projected to grow to some 60 million by 2050.

Even today, while we bemoan increased tuition and fees, they remain a bargain compared to most states, according to College Board and California college data. In the 2010-2011 academic year, average tuition and fees for a four-year public college added up to $9,857 in New England, $6,428 in the South and $5,134 in California. At a two-year community college, the cost was $4,221 in New England, an average of $1,594 in the West and $624 in California.

It’s also important to note that once we add books and supplies plus room and board, the bill is far more than many low- and middle-income families can afford — particularly since those are often the families whose overall income has declined the past several years.

That point argues the need for assistance to families who can’t otherwise finance a college education for their children. It does not argue, however, for pretending our economically distressed state can maintain such low fees for all students.

We need more government and educational leaders — like UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi who is interviewed in this issue — who can look creatively at our post-secondary institutions and create new models. These models should acknowledge decreased state funding, cultivate other revenue sources (including new academic programs) and reduce costs through organizational consolidation and improvements, not just cuts.

In short, we all need to look at the challenges facing California’s higher education with creativity and a vision for the future, rather than continuing to fight the battles of the past.

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