California Leads in Promoting Higher Education Equality

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.

Recently, a leading New York educator lamented that “too many academically talented children” from low income families are “shut out of college or turned away from selective universities”.   This is a national problem, but one where California is making progress that should be a model for the nation.

The latest good news on this front is a cooperative agreement between the University of California and the state’s community colleges to guarantee UC admission to community college associate degree graduates who have taken required classes and achieve a designated grade point average.

State Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley noted that “community college students who transfer to the UC campuses do as well, or sometimes better, academically, as students who start their studies at a UC.” He added that the agreement will “help more Californians from all backgrounds realize the promise of higher education and move our state forward.”

This is just one example of the extraordinary work and cooperation among the three pillars of California’s public higher education system—UC, California State University, and the community colleges.  The results speak for themselves:

  • More than half of undergraduates at CSU campuses receive federal Pell Grants targeted to students from lower income families.
  • At UC, 38% of undergraduates qualify for Pell Grants and 42% are first in their family to attend college.  UC Berkeley and UCLA each serve more Pell Grant students than the entire Ivy League combined.
  • California’s community colleges serve more than two million students

These are great signs of progress, but much more remains to be done.  Continued State underfunding of UC and CSU undermines their ability to admit more deserving California students.  As our high schools and community colleges produce more college qualified students, our four-year colleges can’t accommodate them without additional dollars.  For too long, the State has shifted too much of the cost burden to students and their families in the form of tuition and fee increases.

In his column in the New York Times, former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy wrote “there is no easy fix.  Creating economically diverse campuses is complicated and costly.  Higher education did not cause and will not cure economic inequality.  But as colleges struggle to come up with the right formula, the odds against children who come from families earning the median income or less actually graduating from college seem to grow more formidable.”

California’s higher education system is working to beat those odds with significant success in providing opportunity for young men and women at every wrung of the economic spectrum and in achieving unprecedented diversity.  At a time when State revenues are quite healthy, the Governor and the Legislature can take another step to improve those odds by fully funding UC, CSU and the community colleges in the 2018-19 State Budget now wending its way through the legislative process.

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