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institutions in 1970 should, in 2004, with 35million residents
and a “tidal wave” of new students (Kerr’s term), still have only
the same nine public Ph.D.-granting universities, and growing
obstacles to student access to its lower-track institutions is partly
the result of that plan.”
Part of the problemmay be that the least powerful of the
three segments—the community college system—is actually the
most important link in the chain.The idea of a strong systemof
public two-year colleges initiated in California and was codified
in theMaster Plan. In designating that only the top one-third of
high school graduates could attend one of the state’s universities,
the plan assigned the community colleges to serve any remaining
student who could benefit frompostsecondary education. As
higher education has become increasingly necessary for anyone
wishing to pursue career-path employment, the colleges have
becomemore andmore critical to ensuring that postsecondary
However, while higher education has historically embraced
community colleges’ access mission, the state’s vision for them
has only recently begun to include completion and transfer rates.
“TheMaster Plan is access, access, access,” noted Charlie Reed
of Cal State. “Today it’s access and completing the degree and
getting out and going into this workforce that California has.”
A state that routes a greater proportion of students to attend
community colleges must ultimately have amore effective
transfer system in order to address the need for
baccalaureate degrees.
And, as if that weren’t a great enough
challenge, California’s colleges must do so
with fewer dollars than community colleges
in other states—and with less than the K–12
system.Though state subsidies in California
approach the national average, extremely
low fees andminimal investment in financial
aid puts the community college systemat a
serious disadvantage compared to other states.
California’s colleges receive roughly $5,500
per student in fees and state funding per year,
compared with nearly $7,000 in other western
states, according toWICHE.
Despite being chronically underfunded,
the colleges are struggling to serve large numbers of students
coming to themunprepared for college classes. More than 70
percent of students who take a placement exam are assessed as
performing below college-level—the combined result of poor
K–12 preparation and delays in college attendance. Of those
who take remedial courses in English, only 41 percent attempt
a transfer-level class within three years. Even fewer—just 14
percent—do so inmath.
Addressing such dismal data is a challenge, given that
by early 2008 the state had not developed any specific goals
regarding the state’s education level or strategies for increasing it.
An opportunity to do so came and went in the three-year period
from1999 to 2002, when theMaster Planwas revisited. Despite
an effort by state Senator Dede Alpert to rewrite the plan, the
final document barely altered the original version, aside from the
addition of sections on K–12 education. And even thosemodest
changes were never enacted into law.
Since then, the only significant departure has been the
2005 vote of the legislature to allowCal State to offer doctorates
in education, Ed.D. degrees, despite UC leaders’ fears about
lowering academic quality and opening the door for Cal State to
further encroach on their turf. Indeed, a new proposal surfaced
in 2008 to extend the doctorate to nursing as well.
Today, even long-time devotees of theMaster Plan have
begun to question its utility in the 21st century. “California has
basically a structural inadequacy in dealing with the educational
needs of California and its long-termcompetitiveness,” said
Douglass. “I came to this reluctantly, because I’ve always had
a strong sense of themagic and power of California’s tripartite
“For a long time, I kept thinking it just needs to be healthier,
if you could just enhance the systemand have better funding
mechanisms for the community colleges. I think now that there’s
just a structural flaw that goes beyond funding. California was
an innovator that kept doing things to change the systemat the
margins. In the last 30 years, it’s basically not done anything
innovative to its higher education system.The vision of 1960
is not one that meets the socioeconomic needs of a state like
California and its long-termeconomic competitiveness.”
The closest thing to goal-setting has been a series of
“compacts” between the state and its four-year universities,
guaranteeing funding and fee levels over a four-year period in
exchange for some additional reporting. Because of constraints
on state funding sources, the agreements have not prevented an
outcry over rising fees. Since the fall of 1997, tuition and fees have
risen from$4,212 to $7,347 at UC, and from$1,946 to $3,451
at Cal State. Community college fees increased from$13 per
unit ($390 for 30 units) to $26 per unit ($780) in 2006, and back
down to $20 per unit ($600) in 2007—about one-quarter of the
national average. Nevertheless, the four-year institutions favor the
compacts because of the predictability they offer.
“The compacts have introduced stability because the
institutions know that it’s a guarantee, and it seems to be non-
partisan because it’s passed fromGovernorWilson toDavis
to Schwarzenegger,” noted Shulock. “But there’s no teeth in
them.There are no state priorities.They just require that UC
and Cal State report certain things.They don’t say we want
you to improve transfer or help the statemeet its shortage of
computer scientists or engineers.They’ve been a good thing for
the institutions, but I don’t think they’ve been tapped for their
potential to be a good thing for the state.
“The governor just shakes hands with the president of UC
and says here’s what you’re getting. Community colleges don’t
fit in.They’re just micro-managed by the legislature and the
Department of Finance. We’re falling behind other states in terms
of having a public agenda for higher education, because we really
don’t have one,” said Shulock.
Though some critics accusedUC and Cal State of selling out
to Schwarzenegger with the compacts, the universities’ leaders
generally have felt that the deals helped insulate themagainst
budget fluctuations. However, if UC and Cal State administrators
have been satisfied with the arrangement, community college
leaders decidedly have not.The universities’ compacts and the
K–12 system’s budget guarantees make the colleges a de facto last
priority. Even though Proposition 98 dedicates a portion of the
state’s budget for K–14 education, the colleges’ share has been
unpredictable and politically hard to defend.
Tired of being buffeted by the fortunes of the other systems,
community college leaders mounted a ballot initiative in
Today, even long-
time devotees of
California’s Master
Plan for Higher
Education have
begun to question
its utility in the
21st century.