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||Is This a Tidal Wave?
- The 1994 CPEC baseline enrollment projections, which this panel recommended three
years ago, have turned out to be conservative, at least through 1997. The question
remains, however, do the increased enrollments constitute a tidal wave of new students?
The Legislative Analyst Office, in a provocative report to the legislature entitled
Higher Education Enrollments: Is a Tidal Wave Coming?, answered with a resounding
no. The report argues that even the highest projections of enrollment growth--the
Department of Finance's 1997 series projections--do not match the high growth periods
of California's past. The original use of the tidal wave metaphor occurred in response
to pre-recessionary projections, which indicated that California enrollments in higher
education would increase by some 750,000 students early in the next century. Plans
were afoot to build from 15 to 22 new campuses to accommodate this phenomenal growth.
The impact of the recession, however, virtually eliminated the possibility of growth
of that magnitude, and projections in the mid-1990s modified that growth to less
than 500,000. The Department of Finance's recent revisions project an increase of
The Analyst presented an alternative lower set of enrollment projections for legislative
consideration. These projections assumed constant participation rates based on 1996
rates. The projections by the Department of Finance and CPEC are, respectively, about
12% and 9% higher than the Analyst's projections. About 75% of the discrepancy between
the department and the Analyst can be explained by a combination of DRU's use of
more recent data regarding high school graduates, and different assumptions regarding
community college participation rates. Since the community colleges comprise such
a large portion of total undergraduate enrollment in the state, any differences in
assumptions about participation rates at the community colleges will have a large
impact on the estimates. The most recent Department of Finance projections reflect
the increase in participation rates for community colleges and both four-year segments.
The Analyst's projections are not dissimilar from those of the "low alternative"
projections offered by CPEC in 1994. The Analyst's report reiterates points this
panel made in its earlier paper: that assumptions drive the projections and that
policy decisions by the legislature and the segments can effectively determine enrollment.
Among the Analyst's recommendations are: more frequent enrollment projections
by CPEC; annually published, updated projections by each of the segments; and a more
public and open debate about assumptions underlying the estimates, and about policy
options the legislature and the segments face in attempting to control enrollment.
Reduced to its essentials, the Analyst's report emphasizes two points: first,
that the projections by DRU and CPEC are too high, and secondly, that even if the
projections were correct, they would not constitute a tidal wave. On both issues
we disagree. The recent actual enrollment trends are consistent with Department of
Finance and CPEC projections. Further, the assumptions behind these projections,
which forecast slight increases in participation rates, are more consistent with
current experience and state policy. In fact, were the Analyst's Office to update
their projections to include the most recent data, their numbers would begin to converge
with the other two sets of projections. Of course, the Analyst is correct in assuming
that these numbers are not absolutes and that the legislature can adopt policies
which "control" growth. Many of the suggestions the Analyst makes deserve
the kind of review called for and would constitute a part of the increasing efficiency
that we find necessary to accommodate the growth. The approach our panel has emphasized
is to identify the pool of students likely to be seeking higher education opportunities
in the future. The evidence continues to mount that those numbers will grow, and
at a higher rate than projected in our earlier report.
The Analyst's second major point is that the tidal wave analogy is overblown.
On this we also disagree. Recent experience has shown that the increase projected
in 1994 by CPEC--488,000 more students by 2005-06--is probably understated; a figure
approaching 540,000 is more likely. Enrolling this many new students in a state that
is unlikely to build large numbers of new campuses is a formidable task that has
implications approaching tidal wave proportions. Without a combination of careful
state planning and support, increased segmental efficiencies, and increased contributions
from parents and students, these more than half-a-million students indeed threaten
to swamp California's system of higher education. If these students are not provided
the opportunity to enroll, then the Master Plan, which for our purposes is still
the guiding state policy, will no longer continue to be a reality.15
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© 1998 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education