Over the past fifty years, few states have been able to harness the power of higher education to drive growth and improve the quality of life for its residents quite like California.
The state set its course in 1960, by adopting a Master Plan for Higher Education that landed it on the cover of Time magazine. The plan spelled out who should be guaranteed access to which state institutions and placed the state’s fast-growing but unorganized web of public colleges into three well-defined tiers: the top high-school graduates and research functions went to the University of California, the middle graduates to the California State University System, and the rest to the state’s community colleges.
It was a plan admired and emulated by many other states, and one that held true to its origins until recent budget troubles in the state put it under incredible strain. Still, California’s public higher-education system remains the best in the country, and it has more public research universities than any other state. It is no accident that many of the advances of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first century have emanated from California.
Today, California higher education is sounding an SOS signal. Yes, a large part of its problem is a massive disinvestment by the state taxpayers since the economic downturn. Here are the numbers in all their stark reality from The Chronicle of Higher Education:
The 10-institution UC system has seen its allocation of state funds cut by $1-billion since 2008, a drop of 25 percent. The 116 community colleges have lost $668-million over the same time, a loss of 24 percent. The 23 Cal State institutions have been cut by almost $900-million, 30 percent of their prerecession support.
But some of its problems are self-inflicted. Even as the state’s population has grown and become more diverse, the state’s public institutions have been cutting enrollment in the facing of declining public resources. The result is a clogged system where community-college students are unable to get into a four-year institution, and current students are turned away from classes they need to graduate on time.
The state’s two big public systems—the University of California and California State University—have been slow to adopt innovative approaches to teaching and delivering courses, especially using technology. As my colleague on the K20 Task Force, Ben Wildavsky, has found the University of California’s online initiative is “working hard to gain a toehold just within its own system.”
Matters don’t seem much better at the California State University system. At Cal State Northridge, faculty members in the math department have been experimenting with a hybrid statistics course using free materials from Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative. They started with two sections in 2008, and now five years later, they are just getting around to adding two more sections. Hybrid courses have real potential for opening up physical classroom space and freeing up instructor time because they only meet half the time in class. But at Northridge, even with the added sections, the hybrid courses will still reach fewer than 10 percent of the students enrolled in the course this semester. Reaction in the department to the hybrid course has been split, said Mark Schilling, a math professor at Northridge. “Given this is the math department, most professors teach it like a traditional math course,” Schilling said. “It’s a lot easier to go into the classroom every day and teach the way you always have.”
On Tuesday, several California officials, including the lieutenant governor, are gathering at UCLA with some of the all-stars of the higher-education disruption movement to discuss the potential “for online education to lower the costs for higher education in California.”
It’s a discussion worth paying attention to. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m speaking at the conference). California’s public colleges enroll one out of nine college students in the country. So what happens there matters. More than fifty years ago the Master Plan had a positive impact on higher education in the country. Let’s hope that California can figure out the next big innovation for this century.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons user Makaristos