Big Picture Focus Needed for Higher Education

Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine
Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine co-chair the California Coalition for Public Higher Education. Ackerman is a former California State Senator and Assemblyman, and Levine is a former U.S. Congressman and State Assemblyman.

Almost six decades ago, California adopted the Master Plan for Higher Education that has produced the most successful public higher education system in the world.  The challenge is how we maintain and build on that success.

One positive sign is that the State Assembly has convened a Select Committee on the Master Plan for Higher Education under the chairmanship of Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park).  Hopefully, this panel will look at ways in which the Master Plan can be strengthened. The three segments of our public higher education system must be provided with the tools and resources they need to deliver on the promise of a college education to our young people and the graduation of hundreds of thousands of men and women vital to grow the state’s economy.

The Master Plan set up three distinct, but complementary branches—the University of California, California State University, and the community colleges.  Together they provide the foundation for generations to go on to lead productive and satisfying lives.  The higher education system also serves as the engine that drives California’s creative and innovative economy.

*The University of California is one of the world’s elite research universities.  Five UC campuses are among the top ten public universities ranked by US News and World Report, including UC Berkeley and UCLA, which tied for the top spots.  Not only are UC campuses top flight centers of under-graduate and graduate education, they are also prolific producers of groundbreaking research.  UC’s health care campuses provide extraordinary care and produce important medical advances.  While still a bargain compared to comparable universities across the country, UC has been forced to offset reductions in State allocations with increases in tuition and limitation on enrollment.

*  California State University is the largest university system in the nation with 23 campuses and almost half a million students.  CSU awards more bachelor’s degrees than any other segment of higher education in California and trains a majority of the state’s K-12 teachers.  The ranks of nurses, law enforcement and business are filled with CSU graduates.  Yet, CSU has had to turn away some 7,000 qualified applicants because funding is not available to provide the faculty, classrooms, laboratories, and services to support their enrollment.

*   California’s 114 community colleges form the largest higher education system in the country with more than two million students enrolled, including 900,000 full time.  These two years institutions serve not only as a bridge to four-year colleges, but also, importantly, as vital sources of career and vocational training and cultural enrichment.  While the community college State funding picture has benefited from increases in K-14 education, their graduates must face the logjam at UC and CSU.

All three segments have been working hard to accommodate increased enrollment, even as State funding has lagged for years.  These schools have also been leaders in serving California’s diverse population and providing an open door for first in their family college entrants.  In so many ways, our higher education system is the future of California.

In recent years, there has been some progress in restoring a portion of the funding lost by higher education in State Budgets as the Legislature and the Governor’s office have sought to cope with a volatile economy and competing demands on the State’s resources.  Yet per student State funding for UC and CSU remains only a fraction of what it was two decades ago.

Too often, lately, legislators have focused on proposals to micro-manage the three systems, rather than addressing the imperative of bringing State support back to a level where our campuses can accommodate all qualified applicants seeking a first-rate education. Today, our high schools are producing more college ready graduates than was envisioned in the Master Plan in 1960—almost a third more for CSU and at least 10% more for UC.  It makes no sense for UC and CSU to have to shut the door on qualified California students.

Obviously, much has changed in the past 60 years.  California has experienced massive growth.  Technological change has remade our society and our economy.  Our population is highly diverse and filled with young people seeking opportunity.  California’s workforce needs have tilted decisively toward college graduates.

The Assembly Select Committee on the Master Plan should look at the big picture—how our higher education system can maintain excellence, sustain affordability for students and their families and improve access for those Californians ready and able.  California’s Master Plan continues to serve us well.  Our friends in the Capitol just need to find the dollars to keep its commitment of a quality education for each new generation.

Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine co-chair the California Coalition for Public Higher Education. Ackerman is a former California State Senator and Assemblyman, and Levine is a former U.S. Congressman and State Assemblyman.

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