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California Higher Ed Chiefs Urge Renewed Investment


The heads of California’s three-tiered higher education system testified before a legislative committee Monday, defending the nearly 50-year-old plan that has defined the state’s education policy. They urged legislators to pursue a renewed commitment to reinvestment in California public higher education.


The Master Plan of 1960, a framework devised to provide accessible, affordable and high-quality education to California residents, is under state legislative review as state officials struggle to ensure higher education access during a fiscal crisis.  


California Community Colleges Chancellor Dr. Jack Scott, echoing the opening line from the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities, described the condition of the state’s two-year schools.


“The good news is community colleges have never been more popular,” Scott said, adding enrollment increased about 3 percent this fall. “The bad news is we are forced to turn away students. We don’t turn them away because we don’t admit them. We turn them away because when they come to our campus they find classes are not available. … College education is being denied and delayed.”


Scott described the 8 percent reduction in state funding as “the sharpest and deepest cut in my memory.” As the economy pushes more Californians, many of whom are low-income minorities, to equip themselves with new skills, community colleges grapple with enrollment caps and fewer course sections.


“Classes are filled to the max,” Scott said, and many are losing out on opportunities at California’s 110 community college system, which serves about 2.9 million students.


Under the Master Plan, community colleges are open to all citizens seeking an education, offering “lower–division instruction,” and focusing on remedial and vocational training. These students, 50 percent of whom are under-represented minorities, are crowding into community colleges because they can’t afford to transfer.

For the California State University schools, the focus is on admitting the top third of high school seniors seeking liberal arts and sciences instruction. Those seniors graduating in the top 12.5 percent of their class are eligible for admission to the University of California schools, the state’s primary research institutions offering baccalaureate, master’s, doctoral and other professional degrees.


“The master plan is not broken, there are ways to tweak it, fix it and bring it up to date,” said CSU Chancellor Dr. Charles Reed, adding the plan has been emulated around the world.


Instead, he admonished the joint committee to orient its decisions around the students and advised against the privatization of a public good.


“The future of California is tied to education. More people need it today than back when the plan was first invented,” Reed said. “In this state, our economy is at risk and our communities’ cultural and social well being is at risk. It’s a future civil rights issue.”


Over the last 30 years, California public investment in higher education has declined while policymakers have abandoned some of the Plan’s recommendations, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO).


In their 50-year assessment of the Plan, the LAO wrote that the state Legislature’s vision for higher education has blurred.


Today, the state is facing projected shortages of college graduates and is seeking ways to increase college enrollment. At the same time, incoming students are less prepared for college, resulting in college-completion rates far lower than they were 50 years ago,” the Nov. 12 report stated.


Meanwhile, California prison funding has reached record highs.


“It’s a tragedy for the students who come to us and really want a college education but cannot get a full college education,” Scott said. “It’s a tragedy for California. Statistics indicate what will happen to the economy if we don’t provide education to those who desire it.”


The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), nonpartisan think tank, released a report indicating that at the current rate, California schools will not be able to supply the educated work force the economy will demand.


“The PPIC found that 41 percent of jobs in 2025 will need bachelor’s degrees. We are not meeting the expectations,” Scott said in an interview. “I don’t think the way to go is to become less ambitious.”


He said shifting higher education costs to individual students would have a negative impact on under-represented minorities and “all of us are aware we would make a real mistake if in any way we impeded students of color from attending college.”


University of California President Mark Yudof said he is concerned shrinking enrollment and other cost-cutting measures will escalate negative consequences he is seeing. Already noting a “brain drain,” scholars are being lured elsewhere while threats against cardinal programs like the Cal Grant financial aid program persist.


“The key problem is the lack of investment,” Reed said. “I worry about whether we can keep the promise of the master plan to the future of this state.”


Many parents are also troubled. A PPIC report found increased worry from parents who fear they might not be able to afford a college education. Latino parents are more likely to worry than White parents, even among the higher-income groups, the study said.


“California has done a brilliant job,” Yudof said. “It takes decades to create great universities but they can be destroyed in a relatively short amount of time.”


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