Dan Walters

Academic turf wars block access as California faces college gap

Earlier this year, the Public Policy Institute of California issued a report that highlighted a growing shortage of college-educated workers.

With baby boomers leaving the workforce, it said, California is not generating enough college graduates to fill their shoes and meet the growing demands of a sophisticated economy.

“In 2030, if current trends persist, 38 percent of jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree,” PPIC said. “But population and education trends suggest that only 33 percent of working-age adults in California will have bachelor’s degrees by 2030 – a shortfall of 1.1 million college graduates.”

It’s obviously one of those long-term issues, like transportation, housing and water supply, that should be atop the state’s political agenda. But if anything, the slice of state revenues devoted to higher education has been shrinking.

With other demands on the budget, such as medical care for the poor, taking bigger shares, the University of California and the California State University systems have felt compelled to raise student tuition to offset stagnant state aid.

Money, however, is not the only factor. Another big one is the hidebound nature of higher education, driven by a “master plan” that’s more than a half-century old and completely antiquated.

It draws tight lines of demarcation that separate community colleges, the state university system and UC and makes it very difficult to embrace the flexibility that 21st century circumstances require.

Any deviation from orthodoxy, such as allowing community colleges to award four-year degrees, or the state university system to provide doctorates, meets stubborn opposition from guardians of the turf status quo.

There have been some victories, such as recent legislation making it easier for high schools to partner with community colleges and allow high schoolers to take some career-oriented college-level classes.

Ed Source, a website devoted to California education, surveyed the College and Career Pathways Act and found a number of high school-community college partnerships that allow high school students to simultaneously earn high school and college credits.

Experimentally, some community colleges are also offering four-year baccalaureate programs and some state universities are granting a few doctorates.

But there also have been setbacks. The Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, recently opined that a pilot program allowing five state universities to offer doctorates in nursing should expire because there’s no longer a shortage of nurses, and the program didn’t generate anticipated nursing faculty.

Two bills in the current legislative session are aimed at expanding higher education flexibility but both have stalled.

Assembly Bill 405, introduced by Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, would allow some community colleges to award four-degrees in cybersecurity. Assembly Bill 207, carried by Assemblyman (and physician) Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, would authorize Fresno State University to create a medical school.

California’s higher education master plan should not be engraved in stone. It made sense when it was enacted but doesn’t make much sense more than a half-century later.

Ideally, we’d merge our disparate, often competing systems into one seamless system that would meet the needs of the state and its students without bogging down in academic turf spats.

Short of that, we need to introduce much more flexibility into the systems so that they serve the state’s needs, not those of education bureaucrats.

Editor’s Note: This column was updated at 10:48 a.m. April 24, 2017 to correct the name of Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula.

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