Reinventing California’s higher education system

For most of the 20th century, California led the nation — and the world — in the number of high school graduates who went on to college and earned degrees. Its famed public higher education system profoundly shaped the aspirations of the state’s citizens and, ultimately, their views on what it meant to be a Californian. That system also attracted talent from throughout the nation and the world, and it helped build and sustain an entrepreneurial spirit that shaped new sectors of the state’s economy — from microchips to biotechnology.

Degrees: A clarification that was published online-only for this Op-Ed said that data cited about community college degree rates included only students entering those schools intending to get degrees. Instead, the original statement in the Op-Ed is correct: Some studies show that only 18% of those who enter the state’s community colleges earn an AA degree.

California’s higher education system will help define the state’s future too. However, the next chapter may be much less positive. The danger signs are numerous: falling public funding on a per-student basis, unprecedented limits on new enrollments, cuts in faculty positions and relatively low degree-production rates compared with economic competitors in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world. Whereas California was always among the top states in degree-completion rates, it now ranks among the bottom 10. And yet educational attainment levels are exactly what predicts the overall economic performance of states and nations.

The recession is partly to blame. But the trends in California are long in the making. And if budget and performance problems are the new reality, rather than a temporary detour, they presage a very different California — one less educated, and therefore less innovative, less prosperous and less dynamic.

Most critics and observers of California’s system remain focused on incremental and largely marginal improvements, but that’s not enough. If California is to retain its luster as an economic powerhouse, the state needs to think big: It needs to innovate and to re-imagine a higher education system that has barely changed in five decades.

First, California’s political, educational and business leaders should set an ambitious goal that the state match or exceed the access and degree-production rates of the highest-achieving states or, better yet, international competitors.


To achieve that goal, we must reconsider where students go to college.

More than 70% of all the state’s postsecondary students are in community colleges, an underfunded system where most students attend part time and are struggling with their finances. The results include high attrition rates and low degree-completion rates; some studies show only 18% of those who enter the state’s community colleges earn an AA degree, compared with a graduation rate of more than 45% for California State University students and about 90% for University of California students.

This means we must increase access to four-year schools. We must reverse the current trend of reduced enrollment in the Cal State system caused by massive budget cuts, faculty layoffs and reduced course offerings.

At the same time, we must build on existing strengths of the state system. Historically, the distinct missions of each part of California’s three-tiered system contributed to its success at educating so many in its population. Now we need to update that specialization.

We should allow a key number of community colleges, perhaps 10 or more, to grant four-year as well as two-year degrees. Other states are already doing this; their success and failures should be California’s guide. In Florida, for example, the experiment is about “training people for real jobs,” says Miami Dade Community College President Eduardo J. Padron, who cited nursing and teaching programs.

“You won’t see us starting a B.A. in sociology. We’re offering degrees in things the universities don’t want to do,” Padron said.

But one could imagine a more expansive role for these new hybrid colleges in California that would help meet our goals. Some community colleges could focus their curriculum on getting students transferred to a four-year degree program. Others could offer a “gap"-year program to help address the remedial education needs that drag down degree completion rates and burden the Cal State and UC systems.

A new California Polytechnic University sector could build on the existing campuses in San Luis Obispo and Pomona focused on a mission to support science, engineering and technology businesses in California. A new online California Open University could focus primarily on serving adult learners.

How would we pay for such changes? As a consequence of declining public funding, the state is already slouching toward a system that progressively charges wealthy students and international students more in order to subsidize low- and middle-income students. It is time to confront the prospect of a permanent shortfall in public funding, formalize this tuition and fee system (even at the community college level) and figure out how it might best work to increase the educational attainment of Californians. A companion solution, one found in other parts of the world, is to more aggressively attract international students to generate income for higher education, lower costs for native Californians and at the same time bring top talent to the state.

These are all achievable reforms that need further vetting. The biggest danger to California’s well-being isn’t just the political and economic morass that has paralyzed the state for so long. It is our inability to conjure an alternative future. In the case of California’s once-famed higher education system, what is required is aggressive political leadership at the state level and guidance by the higher education community. It also requires the focused support of all Californians who care about socioeconomic mobility, resurrecting a strong middle class and maintaining a competitive economy.

John Aubrey Douglass is senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley. A longer version of this piece appeared in the summer 2011 issue of the quarterly “Boom: A Journal of California.”