Sean Randolph: Retooling public higher education

150 150 Sean Randolph

UC Berkeley Engineering Commencement. (Photo Credit: Ben Chaney/Flickr)

Orignially published in the San Jose Mercury News.

California has been built on a legacy of investment in public infrastructure — in highways, water, and education. Our public higher education system — the University of California, California State University, and community colleges — is the finest in the world, and has provided pathways to opportunity for generations of Californians at all economic levels.

The California Master Plan for Higher Education, created in 1960, has effectively guided this system for more than 50 years, until today. What has changed?

• When it was crafted, only 11 percent of jobs were filled by workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Today the figure is one-third.

• In 1960, 82 percent of the state’s high school graduates were non-Hispanic whites. Today it’s 28 percent.

• Even as demand for education has risen, financial support from the state has fallen, from 18 percent of the budget in 1977 to 11.6 percent today. Appropriations per student have dropped and tuition and fees increased, particularly at UC.

In today’s global economy, competitiveness is based on knowledge, and can’t be built on an undereducated work force. Nor is it acceptable that segments of our population be permanently relegated to low-wage jobs for lack of educational opportunity. Our future depends on the human capital we create — at the top end through research universities that generate technologies and graduates who can compete with the world’s best, and at all levels by providing a trained and flexible work force.

It is essential that California’s leaders — in business, government and education — reconsider the role of public higher education and how to support it. This will require not just increased funding, but innovation in how education is delivered — essentially a compact between government, schools, and citizens that critical funding will be provided, and in return quality education will be accessible to all California citizens.

California’s schools are held to a raft of restrictive administrative requirements, even as state financial commitment has plummeted. This inhibits the changes that are needed. A new report (PDF) by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute outlines many of these reforms, including:

• Allow additional sections and differential fees in community colleges for programs that are expensive, deliver skills needed by industry, and are unavailable with current resources (fees are currently fixed, and the same for an English literature class or instruction in medical technology).

• Establish charter community college campuses, with the freedom to experiment.

• Improve transfer rates from community colleges to state universities.

• Create regional consortia of community colleges aligned with work force needs, and partnerships between community colleges, CSUs and UC to better align and leverage resources.

• Expand the use of digital education, through the spread of successful pilots.

• Revise educational goals with an emphasis on outcomes such as transfer and completion rates.

• Implement a tracking system for student achievement, from K-12 through employment.

• Make more use of public-private partnerships to fund construction, conserving limited public funds for educational priorities.

Band-Aid funding won’t reverse the long-term decline in public resources or the threat that poses to California’s competitiveness. The institutional status quo where educational priorities are set by faculty committees also can’t prevail. Driven by demographics, demand, and technology, education has become a marketplace where new providers are prepared to meet student needs. There is a vital place in this transition for public higher education. California can embrace and lead this process if it acts now. If not it will be left behind.

Sean Randolph is senior director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute and co-author of its report, “Reforming California Public Higher Education for the 21st Century.”


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