Higher Education is Messy in California


Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

California higher education is in big trouble. No surprise there, but the likely culprits of poor student access, affordability and completion may not be just the institutions themselves. Unbeknownst to individuals not privy to California’s complex political ecology, the state’s three primary systems of higher education, according to a new report released by the Institute for Research on Higher Education, are constrained by the inability of state legislatures to determine and align state’s needs to a unified higher education agenda. This situation makes it difficult for institutions to address the needs of racial minority and low-income students, whose enrollment has diminished since the 2008 recession, for increased, affordable educational opportunities. Based on the report’s analysis, there is little evidence — a complex political environment and political indifference, a non-existing statewide finance policy, and insufficient attention to student transitions from high school as well as between the three systems — of a promising future for California higher education.

“California is allergic to leadership,” claims a higher education policymaker, who was interviewed for the report. Not far from the truth, such a statement speaks to the uncoordinated efforts by politicians, policymakers and system leaders — fueled by their individual agendas — to address increasing costs to institutional capacity, dwindling federal financial support and a growing demand for a college education. Unlike other states, California does not possess a higher education governing board that determines the state’s goals, agenda and systematic strategy for improving educational attainment. And despite the 1960 Master Plan, which was developed to give direction to California’s three public systems — University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges — and encourage them to work together, today we see them doing the exact opposite. Each system deliberates on tuition and fees and strategies for survival in isolation of each other, without regard to the students who are moving within and across systems. Even permission to access student records across the three segments lies within each system. The three systems have outgrown the intentions of the Master Plan, and they are in dire need of a board that can unify their efforts as well as represent a formidable force at the state-level.

The median family income has dropped eight percent between 2000-2011, however, tuition across the three California public systems has been anything, but static. According to the report, “At UC, tuition and fees increased from $6,576 in 2007-2008 to $12,132 in 2013-2014 for in-state undergraduates. CSU tuition and fees rose from $3,521 in 2007-2008 to $6,519 in 2011-2012. Fees in two-year institutions doubled, from $600 in 2008-09 to $1,424 in 2013-2014” (p. 10). Moreover, “state appropriations, tuition, and financial aid are established separately with no consideration as to how they align with statewide policies” (p. 2).

This is akin to shooting darts in the dark, or flushing money down the toilet. Despite the tightening of institutional purse strings at the state and federal level, states, especially California in this case, must assess how their lack of financial policy has contributed to the states financial burden. And lastly, there is little coordination within and between the three public systems and the greater K-12 system. The availability of courses to satisfy requirements for each system remain varied across the state and the requirements for smooth transition from a community college to a California State or University of California campus are confounded and constrained by inconsistent course policies. Recent reforms to address these challenges have been met with overall poor transfer rates to four-year institutions.

The unruly environment at the state-level makes it challenging for all students to enter and navigate college, but considering California’s population is 59 percent people of color, consequences of this environment may be more severe for minority students who tend to stem from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Improving achievement for all students must require a stringent examination of how policy is created in order to redevelop a process that tears down barriers, as opposed to creating new ones.

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at PennGSE and a research assistant at CMSIs. 

This article was jointly published with the Huffington Post on Wednesday, May 14th, 2014.