Dear Commons Community,
The Chronicle of Higher Education had a sobering article yesterday on California’s Master Plan for Higher Education entitled, A Grand Plan for Public Higher Ed Is Aging. Can It Be Reinvented? It comments on its chief architect, Clark Kerr, Governor Ronald Reagan’s attack on it, Proposition 13, and the aftereffects of the Great Recession of 2008. The entire article is worth a read. I particularly liked the section on the community colleges and student access. Here is an excerpt:
“From the outset, the plan assigned an outsized role to community colleges. The reasons were twofold: limiting enrollments at four-year institutions would preserve their selectivity. And it brought the state’s costs way down — at that time, after all, most of the expense of educating a community-college student was borne locally.
“That was the genius of it, because you could meet everyone’s needs and do it relatively cheap,” says Simon Marginson, author of The Dream Is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education (University of California Press, 2016). “Community colleges were the linchpin of access.”
The plan envisioned that about 55 percent of California students would be enrolled in community colleges. Today, however, it’s closer to 65 percent. California ranks fifth in the nation in the share of its high-school graduates who enroll directly in community colleges, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. It’s 47th in the percentage who start at four-year institutions.
Significantly more students, however, meet the academic qualifications for Cal State and the University of California than enroll. Still, the master plan’s original admissions formula remains in place.
“We have one of the widest doors to access in the community colleges,” says Brian Murphy, president of De Anza College, a two-year institution. “But we have one of the narrowest — if not the narrowest — doors to be admitted to a research university in the country.”
The emphasis on community colleges made sense in Kerr’s time, when a credential or a two-year degree was more than adequate to secure a good job. In the current economy, though, a bachelor’s degree is often a prerequisite.
It also puts the burden of educating most students on the least well-financed institutions, says Joni E. Finney, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education. The University of California’s per-student allocation is more than double what the community-college system gets from the state.
“There’s a mismatch between where the resources go and where the needs are,” Finney says. “And that’s enshrined in the master plan.”
The financial strain has jeopardized the access mission of California’s community colleges. Since Prop 13’s passage, two-year institutions have repeatedly slashed enrollments during budgetary shortfalls: by 250,000 in the early 1980s, 170,000 a decade later, another 150,000 when the dot-com bubble burst. During the recession that began in 2008, students often had to spend a semester or more on waiting lists for core courses. (The Cal State system has followed a similar pattern.)
As a result, many students are not getting into college, or not getting through. Fewer than a third of California community-college students earn an associate degree after three years. Of those who started in 2009-10, just 10 percent had transferred to a four-year college within six years.
Such statistics are troubling to many Californians. If the master plan envisioned that many students would start in the community colleges, they weren’t supposed to get stuck there. Students who earned a minimum grade-point average in community-college courses were supposed to gain a spot in a four-year institution; universities were required to allocate a higher share of seats to the upper divisions to accommodate transfers.”
The article goes on to comment on the problem of the transfer policies that are especially difficult for community college students to navigate and concludes:
“For them to come together, then, to rethink California’s plan for higher education would be a particularly heavy lift. Nor do the sectors have much incentive to change, Callan and others say. While the three systems struggle with statewide priorities, the current governance structure gives them relative freedom to set and pursue their own institutional goals. It codified their turf.
“Someone with four aces,” says Penn’s Finney, “doesn’t call for a new deal.”
Clark Kerr didn’t intend for the master plan to be set in stone. In the final edition of his classic work, The Uses of the University, published in 2001, two years before his death, he wrote about the need for new models to meet the evolving pressures on public higher education.”
New models of public higher education are indeed needed.