Don't Cut Higher Education; Redesign it

When it comes to fixing higher education in California, here are a few ideas that might actually work: increase tuition, build more colleges for tech geeks and cut resources to community colleges and give them to four-year institutions.

Not suggestions that are going to win a popularity contest.

And not likely on the agenda at the closed-door meeting Gov. Jerry Brown held on Tuesday with the presidents of various California State University campuses.

The discussion was about how to cope with the present: CSU has already taken $500 million in cuts this year.

But what California desperately needs is more thinking about the future of higher education.

The best example of this kind of thinking can be found in a piece by John Aubrey Douglass in the June issue of Boom, a new magazine focusing on California and the source of the ideas listed above (full disclosure: UC Press, which published my most recent book, also publishes Boom, which ran an excerpt from the book).

The problem now, Douglass told me in a conversation Tuesday, is that budget concerns have become all-consuming and higher education in California isn't innovating as it once did. But the state has no choice but to innovate -- since the state population is growing, and by all accounts California needs more college graduates.

Douglass, who has devoted his career to studying higher education in California and around the world, isn't optimistic.

He sees the various campus leaders focusing on how to protect themselves -- and in the process, there's the threat of "an unraveling" of the notion of California higher education as a coherent system.

The piece is not yet on-line, but it's worth picking up because Douglass offers a comprehensive redesign of California's three-headed system of the University of California, Cal State and community colleges.

Douglass' stated goal is to make California a leader in producing college graduates with four-year degrees. Our early 20th century leadership in higher education helped produce the state's wealth.

The piece is full of ideas. Here are a few highlights:

-Pursue foreign students whose tuition and fees can be used to expand access for Californians.

-Set a clear goal that the state match or exceed the access and four-year degree rates of the countries with whom we compete economically.

-Establish a separate system of "polytechnic" universities (essentially more of what we already have with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Pomona) so the state produces more graduates with expertise in science, technology, engineering and math.

-establish a separate "California Open University", independent of UC and CSU, focusing on adult learners and offering on-line courses that lead to degrees and credentials.

-higher fees in many parts of the system so that there is less incentive to drop out. One problem with California's relatively low tuition and fees is that it correlates with high levels of attrition. If you're not paying very much for university, you have little to lose by dropping out.

One of Douglass' most striking ideas has to do with community colleges, which were invented in California and have served as the basis of the system (70 percent of California college students are in community colleges).

The trouble with this tilt towards community colleges is that such colleges aren't particularly good at producing people with college degrees.

Too many students are part-time or wind up dropping out. The California system should be changed to shift more students to four-year institutions, such as UC and CSU. And community colleges should be permitted to offer four-year degrees, as is being done in Florida and other states.

Of his own piece with its various suggestions, Douglass said: " I had no sense that this would go anywhere."

But these ideas should go somewhere. Because California can't afford to stand still.

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