Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What's at Stake in California Higher Education Challenges

By Allison Vale

Recently, the University of California system was honored by Global Green USA with the California Environmental Leadership Award. While certainly an admirable achievement, the award highlights the potential for tragedy for public higher education in California – long a national leader, but one with an uncertain future.

Again and again, the problem stems from a greater statewide crisis. The University of California has lost $813 million in state support. Yes, the university system needs more money, but where is this money going to come from?

Tuition is still significantly lower than out-of-state or private universities. (In fact, the leadership still insists on using the term “fees” in order to stay in accordance with the Master Plan for Education’s assertion that public education be tuition-free. However, tuition/fees have more than doubled over the course of nine short years.)

Fee increases have not coincided with increased benefits for students. Even with the continued existence of financial aid programs, the fact remains that if tuition continues to increase, some of the nation’s leading public universities will become increasingly private.

The overwhelmed California community college system is already engaged in significant cooperation with for-profit schools, such as the University of Phoenix. One of the proposed solutions has been an online university program. It is fairly difficult to imagine an online degree from the University of California coming anywhere near the emotions of a rally on Sproul Plaza or the roar of the crowd during a football game at the Rose Bowl. Many traditional students value those aspects of their University of California undergraduate and graduate educational experience.

Adjustments have been made, but furlough days, eliminated majors or tuition increases might strike some people as being somewhat less than a grand solution. There are concerns about competitiveness after a regime of lay-offs, furloughs and hiring deferrals. For now, each campus is trying to cope, but what the students of California need is hope – hope that they, too, can have access to a quality education.

Of course, local, state, and national politicians have discussed education here at the Club. Unfortunately, noting the importance of education as an economic investment, as a public service, as a right, doesn’t seem to solve the fundamental problem.

At the Keeping California Schools Competitive panel on March 31, Dr. Craig R. Barrett emphasized the needs of the community college system over the state and university systems, while Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, highlighted the social injustice of the K-12 system. With Kopp’s corps of bright teachers motivating disadvantaged students to strive for college, ensuring affordable education becomes all the more important.

Last Wednesday, the chancellors of both the California State University system and the California Community College system, as well as the president of the University of California system, discussed the current status and future of the higher education system with The Commonwealth Club’s president and CEO, Dr. Gloria Duffy.

Each system, even each campus, has had to adapt in unique ways, but the future will require a coordinated, and concerted, effort. You can watch that video here.

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