No teaching, just tests: A new California college?

Students walk through Sather Gate on the UC Berkeley campus.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Here’s what they’re saying in academic circles across the country: California wrecked its public schools decades ago, and now it’s starting in on its colleges.

That may be an exaggeration, but few would deny that this is a pivotal time for the state’s much-admired public colleges and universities, which have been underfunded for years. In their efforts to expand access without spending more money, education officials and state lawmakers will no doubt offer all sorts of bad proposals for how to do more with less, and those who care about the system will have to be vigilant in protecting it.

Already, there’s legislation to create a fourth college system — in addition to the community colleges, the California State University and the University of California — with no classes, just tests. This proposal has more potential to harm than to help restore the state’s educational luster.

“The New University of California,” as it is dubbed in AB 1306, carried by Assemblyman Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita), would have no faculty and do no teaching. People seeking a degree would study however they wanted — on the Internet, through books or with tutors. Then they would pay a fee to take an exam through the New University, which would confer college credits and degrees once certain requirements were completed.

If there were nothing more to a college education than passing an exam, this idea might have merit. But students also need to learn to analyze, debate, experiment and carry out major research projects. Those skills are neither taught, nor fully measured, by tests. Without faculty to insist on standards, there would no doubt be continual pressure to loosen standards for the exams to raise the number of students taking and passing them. The degrees would probably have little value in gaining entry to graduate schools or employment.


That’s not to say that California’s existing colleges shouldn’t explore using tests to allow students to place out of certain courses or even get college credit for them; there already are exams that allow for some of that.

It’s one thing to introduce a handful of online courses as long as they are designed and approved by faculty at California’s public colleges, and properly staffed. But the purpose of state-funded higher education is exactly that — education.