Our View: Fresh vision needed for higher education

10/20/2013 12:00 AM

10/20/2013 8:21 PM

In a report that should not sit on a shelf, the Little Hoover Commission last week urged Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators to devise a new master plan for higher education to meet anticipated demand for 2.3 million more college graduates within 12 years.

A revised master plan, completed 50 years after the first one, would make for an ideal undertaking for a governor whose father is identified with the expansion of California’s public colleges and universities.

As the commission sees it, California must envision higher education on a much greater level than it does now, embrace online education and create seamless transfers from community colleges to four-year institutions, all worthy notions.

The success of public colleges and universities is an economic development and a social justice issue. College must be kept affordable, though the public institutions should not count on large infusions of more public money, the commission said.

Although the report does not call for more funding for higher education, it notes that higher education spending has shrunk from 18 percent of the general fund in the early 1970s to 12 percent today. As it is, California approaches funding in a piecemeal fashion. Tuition rises in bad times and is stable when the economy picks up.

The commission said more online course offerings could help lower costs and ensure access, but that “California is moving substantially slower than it should to integrate online because of faculty opposition as well as institutional inertia.”

Also worth considering, the commission suggested community colleges raise fees, noting “low tuition starves the system of needed resources, while subsidizing education for many students who could afford to pay more.”

Some of the recommendations are obvious. There should be greater oversight and transparency, for example. There also were notable omissions. There is passing mention of private nonprofit colleges. They should be part of any solution.

The commission failed to address administrators’ pay, particularly at the University of California. Lawmakers should take a hard look at pay before sending more money UC’s way.

The report cited innovations that work. The Los Rios Community College District operates a branch campus on UC Davis land, and UC Davis agrees to admit Los Rios students who complete community college course work. That ought to be duplicated elsewhere.

The report also cites Long Beach College Promise, a collaboration among Long Beach public schools, Long Beach City College and California State University, Long Beach. Freshman admissions into Long Beach State from local schools increased by 43 percent between 2008 and 2012. Other state universities could form similar partnerships.

As is the danger with all Little Hoover Commission reports, this one could gather dust. Instead, it should jump-start a serious discussion about the future of higher education in California that could lead to a plan for the next 50 years. Such would be the stuff of legacy for any politician who wants to leave a mark.

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