The Assembly Higher Education Committee unanimously endorsed Assembly Bill 1936 this month, which would seem to bode well for its enactment.
It would create an Office of Higher Education Performance and Accountability to plan how California is to meet its ever-rising demand for post-high school education and coordinate the state’s three college systems.
California faces a potential crisis because it is failing to generate enough college-educated workers to replace retiring baby boomers and fill the demands of an increasingly sophisticated economy. That failure underscores the irrelevance of the state's nearly 60-year-old higher eduction “master plan.”
But if history is any guide, AB 1936 is doomed. At least seven similar bills have either died in the Legislature or been vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, including two by AB 1936’s author – Assemblyman Evan Low, a Campbell Democrat.
Their demise, and the likely death of AB 1936, testify to the difficulty California’s politicians have in dealing with one of the state’s thorniest issues. Every bit of data tells us California faces a crisis by failing to generate enough college-educated workers to replace retiring baby boomers.
That failure underscores the irrelevance of the state’s nearly 60-year-old “master plan” for higher education, which created seamless, low-cost access to community colleges, the state university system and the University of California. But times have changed.
Costs, particularly for tuition at four-year schools, have skyrocketed as the state’s financial support has declined. Demand for classes leading to graduation has outstripped supply. And the three systems that supposedly are models of cooperation have become fiercely competitive.
For instance, the University of California has stoutly resisted efforts by the California State University system to award doctorate degrees, while CSUS has displayed a similar attitude when community colleges sought permission to award baccalaureate degrees. Officials of each system, and their academic unions, constantly snipe at each other, using the master plan to ward off rivals and critics.
For decades, the California Postsecondary Education Commission was supposed to oversee what was happening, conduct analyses and make recommendations. But its functions were predicated on master plan principles, which eroded with time. The three college systems routinely ignored its recommendations.
When, for instance, UC Irvine sought to establish a law school, the CPEC rightfully concluded the state didn’t need another attorney generator in 2007. UC Irvine and UC’s Board of Regents ignored the CPEC and opened the law school anyway.
In 2011, Brown vetoed CPEC’s state financing, putting it out of business. He acknowledged the need for better higher education planning and suggested “stakeholders” work things out. Four years later, in vetoing one of AB 1936’s predecessors, he reiterated the need, but added, “I am not convinced we need a new office … to get the job done.”
Brown is right. Rather than reviving CPEC, politicians should admit the master plan is obsolete and write a new version.
However, Brown has been unwilling to take on the task he says is needed. Higher education reform thus joins the list of difficult, unsexy but vital issues Brown says need the attention he’s unwilling to provide – like reforming the outdated and dangerously imbalanced tax system and overhauling the cumbersome California Environmental Quality Act.
Dan Walters is a columnist at CALmatters, a public-interest journalism organization. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.