What's Up with California Higher Ed?

Ashley Thorne

We often think of California higher education as a trendsetter for universities nationwide. Perhaps that’s because it was the seat of the free speech movement in the 60s, or because it’s currently a hub for student protests over tuition hikes. The state enrolls more college students and has more high-tech jobs than any other. 

All this influence makes it especially important that California higher education succeed in equipping students for educated adult life. And as three top California ed leaders depart and the UC Davis hosts an ideology-packed conference on sustainability, several organizations think that California universities are falling short. Their main concerns vary: for one, it’s that students are paying too much for too little. For another, it’s that politicization is diluting the quality of education. For a third, the problem is that too few students in California are getting degrees. 

On Sunday, June 10, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) released a report, Best Laid Plans: The Unfulfilled Promise of Public Higher Education in California, which surveys general education, freedom of speech, graduation rates, and costs at the California State University and University of California campuses. The ACTA report cites the 1960 “Master Plan for Higher Education in California,” published by the state’s Department of Education as a set of recommendations for the UC Board of Regents. 

The master plan called for “scrupulous policy planning to realize the maximum value from the tax dollar.” It was about making the most of the money that was available. For years the master plan served as a model for higher education governance, but it has now been largely abandoned as universities took it upon themselves to prescribe new academic and administrative initiatives, and then to expand the budget to fit their plans. 

This is why the ACTA authors find that “the real threat to the preeminence of California’s higher education is not a lack of funds,” but is “a fundamental failure by today’s trustees and system leaders to apply the same creativity and thoughtfulness that informed the Master Plan to a new world of reduced resources and a shrinking tax base.” The report looks at what governing boards have done in the past and makes twelve recommendations as to what they can do now, including “Establish and publicize clear measures of cost effectiveness and productivity” and “Incentivize and reward teaching.” 

ACTA’s report is an added buttress supporting the arguments of our affiliate, the California Association of Scholars (CAS), in its April 2012 publication A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California. There the CAS authors show that the University of California has eased into a pattern of allowing politics to influence its educational mission. Many courses explicitly support training students as activists who will promote particular political agendas. Critical Race Studies at UCLA’s School of Law, for example, aims to be a “training ground” for “advocates committed to racial justice theory and practice.”  Meanwhile, core courses in subjects such as Western civilization are disappearing, and more and more students lack the basic knowledge and skills that higher education ought to impart. 

Like ACTA’s report, CAS’s A Crisis of Competence is addressed to the regents; it calls on them to take seriously their responsibility “to see that the University remain aloof from politics and never function as an instrument for the advance of partisan interest” (UC Regents’ Policy on Course Content). At a recent press conference where one of the authors of the CAS report, Charles L. Geshekter, was attending, UC president Mark Yudof said he agreed that ideological bias was a problem, but that he was powerless to change anything. Geshekter challenged Yudof to send a memo to all faculty members taking a strong stand against political advocacy in the classroom. The UC president’s answer was something of a shrug: “I could do that. I don't know that it would do much good.” 

Another organization, California Competes, has issued a report, The Road Ahead. California Competes believes that the strength of an economy is proportional to the level of higher education achievement. According to the group, not enough people are graduating because of, as the Chronicle of Higher Education put it, “The ‘dysfunctional governance’ structure of California's giant community-college system and the absence of an independent and accountable statewide body to steer higher-education policy toward the state's work-force needs.” 

California Competes is directed by Robert Shireman, the former deputy undersecretary of Education who started the anti-for-profit education movement. The Road Ahead proposes to create a Higher Education Investment Board in California. The Board would be “a legislatively created nonprofit corporation with some governmental responsibility” with the job of providing independent information on the state of higher education. The report authors address their proposal to Governor Jerry Brown and the State Legislature. 

The state’s urgent need, according to California Competes, is to “increase college degree and certificate production by 2.3 million more than currently projected by 2025.” Note that it doesn’t say we need 2.3 million more educated people, but that we need to increase degree production. While the report does say that degrees ought to be "meaningful" (and that we should avoid easy fixes such as doubling class size), it looks as though Shireman and his organization have joined the ranks of those who confuse quantity with quality

When Peter Wood and I debated Education Sector’s Kevin Carey on the push to increase college enrollment, we argued that not only does this increase lead to lower standards and a devaluing of the college degree (if almost everyone has one, then it’s not a particularly noteworthy achievement), but also that swelling enrollments in higher education is a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Some people are right for college if they have the ability and motivation. Others ought to apply their intellect and skills to other ventures, such as entrepreneurship, learning a trade, serving in the military, or missionary work, as the case may be. The movement to enroll millions more in higher education shows a lack of respect for human diversity. 

Instead we ought to recognize that people have varying propensities and talents and shouldn’t be pressured to take only one path to adulthood. What we need is better education, not necessarily more of the same. 

While the ACTA, CAS, and California Competes reports differ in substance and perspective, they share a common concern for the quality of higher education in California. Perhaps the three groups ought to see whether they can work out a common agenda for higher ed reform in the Golden State. In the meantime, California educators and politicians should pay attention to all the suggestions coming their way and consider whether some of them are worth doing.

Image 1: California state flag Martin Jambon/Flickr CC

Image 2: University of Nevada, Reno

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