California’s public higher education system faulted

April 29, 2014 12:57pm
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•  Report says it is rudderless, heading to mediocrity

•  “You could say that the system is too big too fail”

California’s public system of higher education is rudderless, with a vortex of political, economic, and demographic forces threatening its ability to meet the state’s future economic and civic needs, says a report Tuesday from the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education.

With one of the largest economies in the world -- and 14 percent of all enrolled undergraduates in the nation -- California and its higher education system have an impact far beyond state borders, the report says.

As the urgency for addressing the many problems plaguing the once-heralded system grows, so too does the list of remedies offered by business and policy groups in the state.

But will any of the proposed solutions actually work?

The Penn report, “From Master Plan to Mediocrity: Higher Education Performance and Policy in California,” exposes what it considers the many factors contributing to the unstable system.

Here’s what the research says is wrong with California’s three-part system of colleges and universities:

• A persistent absence of long-term state policy leadership, and,

• A persistent reliance on short-term political fixes to address higher education.

“This situation is in stark contrast to the 1960s through the 1980s — when the system was the envy of the nation and state leaders provided clear and appropriate guidance, through a master plan that was well suited for the 20th century,” the report says.

But since the 1990s, California’s public education system has not kept pace with economic and demographic changes. Only 38.8% of adults over 25 years of age had an associate’s degree or higher in 2012, placing California 23rd in the nation in degree attainment. Deep cuts in state funding and the lack of a long-term, viable finance policy for higher education, as well as political indifference about higher education policy, have forced California’s public colleges and universities to reduce enrollment, staff, faculty, and student services while increasing tuition and fees, it notes.

If current trends continue, the state will experience severe shortfalls in the number of people with the workforce certificates and degrees necessary to ensure prosperity and social mobility for the majority of Californians, it says.

But the problem reaches beyond state lines.

“Because of the outsized role that California plays in the nation’s economy and in educating the nation’s college students, you could say that the system is too big too fail,” says Penn GSE professor Joni Finney, who pioneered Measuring Up, the nation’s first report card on higher education.

For any remedy to address the needs of the state’s increasingly diverse population and the economic sector’s growing need for a highly educated workforce, the report says California’s leaders must attend to the following issues:

• A complex political environment and political indifference, which has led to a lack of statewide higher education policy leadership.

For example: California’s ballot initiative process increasingly hinders the ability of state leaders to engage in long-term policies decoupled from a particular initiative, political campaign, or gubernatorial administration.

Each higher education segment — the University of California system, the California State University system, and California Community Colleges — creates individualized policies rather than policies that support increasing educational attainment to meet the state’s overall current and future economic needs.

• The absence of a coordinated statewide finance policy, which undermines chances of improving degree attainment rates and threatens affordability.

For example: State appropriations, tuition, and financial aid are established separately with no consideration as to their effect on certificate and degree attainment for Californians.

Appropriations are not tied to the performance of the segments and, in the case of CSU and UC, are largely determined through annual agreements with the governor.

Despite increased efforts to provide state financial aid to college students, such aid does not come close to meeting students’ needs.

• Inadequate pipelines between high schools and postsecondary institutions and between two- and four-year institutions, which create obstacles to increasing higher education attainment in the state.

For example: K-12 curriculum is largely not aligned with training and education programs beyond high school.

Despite recent efforts to streamline transfer from CCC to CSU, the transition from community college to the other two segments remains unnecessarily difficult for students.

Not all is in the scholastic Dumpster in California. Ms. Finney says California's commitment to research is very high, compared to other states. “Unfortunately, it appears that the commitment to research excellence came at the expense of providing education to qualified and motivated undergraduate students,” she says. “This is a tradeoff that will hurt California in the long run. The challenge for the state is to engage in a process of reform that will maintain both its excellence in research and provide opportunities for students to pursue postsecondary education.”

“The research team purposely remained agnostic about specific solutions,” says Ms. Finney, “because our goal is for the report to serve as a tool — a litmus test, so to speak — that state leaders can use to evaluate any recommendation, including those recently issued by various California business and policy groups. Ultimately, the responsibility for the future health of California’s public colleges and universities rests squarely with the governor and legislature. The stakes are high, but continued indifference will come at a great cost to the state and the nation.”

Copies of the study will be sent to the governor and other elected officials “who ultimately have the public responsibility to provide leadership for the future of higher education in California,” Ms. Finney tells CVBT in an email. “The report will also be shared with leading think tanks, scholars and leaders of higher education in California.”

About the study

There was no outside funding for the study. Ms. Finney is on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania and has studied higher education systems in other large states. Graduate students are funded with scholarships to work on research projects, although some graduate students on the research team volunteered their time to work on this research project, she says.

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Comments on this story

George Williams 4/29/14 1:35 PM
According to , a general MBA can be obtained for as little as $6k and as high as $120k. If students would do a little research, they would find that it is not nearly as expensive to get a college degree

Anthony 4/29/14 11:40 PM
The public higher education system in California needs to address key issues like globalization in higher education, and university evaluation and rankings. University leaders should attend some higher education seminars like QS WorldClass, where they provide expert advice on these issues, and opportunities to network and partner with other universities. Here's the link: There are also conferences like QS-MAPLE and QS-APPLE for universities in the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and North African regions. Check them out at: and

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