By Goldie Blumenstyk
The “dysfunctional governance” structure of California’s giant community-college system and the absence of an independent and accountable statewide body to steer higher-education policy toward the state’s work-force needs are undermining the economy, says a report released on Thursday by California Competes, a council of civic and business leaders.
Over the next 13 years California will need 5.5 million people with “meaningful” higher-education degrees and certificates in science, mathematics, and other fields—2.3 million more than previously projected, says the report, “The Road Ahead.” But it warns that the state is unlikely to achieve that goal unless it overhauls how its community colleges are run and how state educational resources are allocated. Failure to act, it says, will also perpetuate the unusually big gap in educational attainment that separates white and Asian students in California from its minority citizens. Half of California’s whites have an associate degree or higher; among Latinos, African-Americans, and Native Americans, the figure is 18 percent.
That attainment gap is one reason California Competes focused so heavily on community-college reform, said Mayor Bob Foster of Long Beach, Calif., a member of California Competes who spoke on Thursday at a news conference at Long Beach City College, where the report was released. For those students, the state’s 112 community colleges “may be their shot to get educated,” but the colleges need to be improved so more students get a credential that will help them get a job or enable them to transfer to a four-year institution.
“We’ve got to find better ways to deliver advising to our students” as well, said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of the college, a two-year institution, who also spoke at the news conference.
The report recommends strengthening the say of the community-college system’s chancellor over budgetary and personnel policies, and eliminating laws that now give academic senates within each of the 72 local community-college districts the right to set policy even though they are not ultimately held responsible for how the colleges perform.
Robert Shireman, a former U.S. Education Department official who is now director of California Competes, said such a change was particularly important now, as several of the college presidencies and the chancellor’s post itself are vacant. Candidates for those jobs “don’t want to go to a community college as a leader and then not be able to lead,” he said.
The report also calls for creating a new Higher Education Investment Board that could oversee the state’s Cal Grant financial-aid programs and help to assure that funds go where they are most needed.
“No matter what happens at the resource side, we have to get much better at what we do,” said Mayor Foster.
California used to have a Postsecondary Education Commission to help set educational priorities, but Mr. Shireman said it was not as effective as it could be because “it lacked independence, it lacked authority, and it lacked the funding to do its job.”
The report recommends that all public and private colleges in the state be charged a small fee to help finance the new investment board.
The report also warns against facile solutions that could compromise academic quality. “Doubling class size to serve more students might seem more efficient, but if it means that students are no longer getting feedback on written assignments and engaging in class discussions, graduates will finish with poorer analytical and critical thinking skills, severely undermining the value of the degree,” it says. “It is also critical to pay attention to the programs that colleges offer. It is much cheaper to produce a graduate in hotel management than in engineering, but the state would not be well served by replacing all of our engineering degree programs with business programs in the interest of producing more graduates.”
Because campus decisions are driven by factors like per-student formula financing, which doesn’t take the varying costs of different degrees into account, the report urges public-policy makers to change those approaches to discourage institutions from simply adding majors that are the cheapest to offer.
The report also focuses on the institutions themselves, pointedly chastising faculty members for being “often too quick to reject reforms” by claiming they would undermine quality. It recommends that instructors and administrators at public and private colleges establish clearer standards for degrees and their methods of assessing students, so innovations can be fairly measured.Email This Article