Recently, one of my weekly syndicated columns at Zocalo Public Square looked at the wrongheaded way Californians think about their own public university systems, particularly the UC. I made a brief, critical reference to the Legislative Analyst’s Office work on this. Now I’d like to expand on it, in hopes that LAO will do some serious reconsideration of how it considers higher education.
Here’s the problem: LAO is way too focused on higher ed as it relates to the budget. And so it has argued for limited enrollment growth at CSU and flat enrollment at UC.
There’s a wonky word that the LAO folks will understand for their position: it’s nuts. Applications to universities in California and elsewhere are way up. And California needs to produce many more college graduates for itself. And California has a huge interest both in luring college kids from other states and keeping the California kids it has paid to educate.
So why limit enrollment?
The LAO, in previous publications, has defended its views on enrollment by citing statistics showing a decline in the college-age population in the state, and a dip in the number of recent California high school graduates attending college. (And with the UC, the LAO argument is that the system continues to accept all eligible students, so there’s no reason for increases in enrollment).
See what I mean by nuts?
Those statistics actually argue for greater college enrollment. PPIC has shown that California high school graduates are better prepared for college – but fewer are going; enrollment rates in UC and CSU have fallen steeply among recent high school grads. So we’re not connecting even well prepared kids for college.
A decline in the number of college-age kids isn’t a justification for limiting enrollment. Fewer kids, in fact, means that we must do more with those we have. We also have more reason to recruit kids from out of state and out of the country – and to target older-than-college age Californias who have some college – but never completed their studies. These Californians are an untapped resource for the state; California is lagging states like Montana and Nebraska in the percentage of adults ages 25 to 34 who are college graduates; reversing those numbers would be a big worthwhile state project (yeah, I know – if California took on big, worthwhile state projects anymore. )
On finances, the LAO leans heavily on mathematical comparison, in ways that obscure human reality. These arguments include: the net prices students pay are often less than the list price (reality check: yes, they may be getting a discount, but they’re paying more). Students’ share of educational costs is declining (reality: yes, but that doesn’t mean their costs aren’t going up – and at a time when the middle class is in decline). Student debt levels remain low by national comparisons (reality: good for us – we haven’t ramped up student debt levels quite as badly as other places).
The LAO also thinks that the legislature, which has systematically disinvested in higher ed over the past couple generations (albeit because it has few options given the constitutional budget messes the voters have made), should have more of a role in higher education funding decision. I realize it’s the “Legislative” Analyst, but really? Why should the state be able to provide less money and have more power?
Let me be impolite about who loses from LAO style thinking: the rising diverse generation of Californians. To make the point even finer: Almost all the growth in California high school graduates in the coming decades will be among Latinos. More Latinos than ever before are applying to UC.
LAO needs to think about why it is making assumptions that position it as hostile to college access. And then do some serious rethinking on higher ed.