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  • Tim Brinton / NewsArt

  • Karen Humphrey

Viewpoints: Set higher education goals, for the good of all

Published: Sunday, Sep. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5E

Gov. Jerry Brown's recent veto of Senate Bill 721 on higher education goals brings to mind the echo of an old movie line, slightly rephrased: "Goals? We don't need no stinkin' goals!"

To be fair, the governor's 2012-13 budget did propose "performance measures" for the public higher education systems, though not goals to which those measures would be tied. But according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, his proposal "lacked details" and needed refocusing. Of course, it's purely coincidental that the veto message said performance measures were "way too important to be delegated to the Legislative Analyst," as the bill proposed.

Why does it matter that Brown vetoed this bill? It matters because California has long needed quantifiable goals for postsecondary education. To drive decision-making and action, they are an essential starting point and must be embraced by the governor, the Legislature, the postsecondary community and the public.

Once goals are established, "accountability measures" are needed to see how we're doing. Those measures also demand a robust longitudinal database that can track student progress from pre-K into the workforce and link databases across systems.

Goals and accountability measures are not likely to be developed or embraced by anybody without a deliberate collaborative process involving all stakeholders. Such a process doesn't happen by magic. It takes a capable agency to manage it and a commitment by policymakers to the product of that process. That was the point of SB 721.

This governor is not the first to pay lip service to ensuring California has "world-class higher education" that is "accountable." But none has actually done much to make it happen. Moreover, the budgets they propose continue to erode direct state funding for the public systems and student aid, with especially dramatic cuts in the past six years. Citing budget pressures, they also reject the data system that real accountability requires.

The result: Tuition rises dramatically; enrollments decline; college opportunity collapses; and the entire vast public system that is arguably California's greatest asset slides slowly and inexorably toward starvation or privatization.

California has long pointed to its 50-year-old Master Plan as evidence of our commitment to higher education – but that plan has run on autopilot for many years. Furthermore, it focuses on the starting point – access and affordability – not the end. It sets no clear goals for student success or contributions to California's economy, civic engagement or quality of life.

California's public systems and most private institutions have their own sets of goals and performance measures. That's good, but those may or may not align with what the state as a whole needs, taking into account our economy, demographics, and educational resources. Without identifying what ALL Californians need from postsecondary education, and what we should expect from our investment, we can't evaluate the impact of higher education or make strategic improvements in how we use our resources.

It isn't necessary to scrap the Master Plan, but it is necessary to address the need for goals that include measurable outcomes. SB 721 was the most recent effort to do that, but like two other bills in the past decade, it died in the Governor's Office. Neither Brown nor his predecessors seemed willing to work with the Legislature on a bill they could sign.

In fact, in a backward step last year, the governor used a line-item budget veto to eliminate the state's long-standing independent public agency on higher education policy – the California Postsecondary Education Commission. It had the capacity, expertise and much of the data to play a key role in setting goals and measures for an effective accountability system. With the commission gone, the only reasonably neutral state entity to lead this process was the LAO. The governor proposes no other alternative.

So with no goal-setting process in sight, no agency or database to support higher education policy and accountability, and no apparent interest by the governor in working on higher education goals, where are we?

It's time for the public – the business community, educators, public and nonprofit entities, and the citizens of California – to demand an end to the tug of war between governors and legislators, and sometimes postsecondary systems themselves. Without collaboration and a real commitment to the future of higher education, we are faced with a continuing downward spiral of the world's finest public colleges and universities and the inevitable decline of California's educational attainment, economic vitality and quality of life.

The budgets our governors propose continue to erode direct state funding for the public systems and student aid, with especially dramatic cuts in the past six years. Citing budget pressures, they also reject the data system that real accountability requires.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Karen Humphrey



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