Executive Summary
California: The Changing Context
Tidal Wave II Revisited
The Original Projections
The 1994 Projections vs.Today's Reality
Accounting for the Growth
Updated Projections
How the Cohorts Have Changed
Is This a Tidal Wave?
Improving Projections
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Page 11 of 15

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 about 538,000.

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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