Don’t forget about private colleges in higher education debate

University of the Pacific President Pamela Eibeck
University of the Pacific President Pamela Eibeck Sacramento Bee file

California faces both a tremendous challenge and an exciting opportunity to ensure that every academically qualified student has access to a higher education.

Rarely a day goes by that we don’t read about soaring student debt, disinvestment in public universities, enrollment limits or the debate among legislative leaders about the constitutional autonomy of the University of California system.

Often overlooked, however, are California’s private nonprofit colleges and universities, a vital sector of the state’s higher education system that is prepared to take on a larger role. Tuesday, hundreds of students and university leaders will be at the state Capitol for our annual lobbying day.

Private colleges account for more than 20 percent of the state’s undergraduate students (70 percent of them Californians) and half of its graduate students – a total of nearly 320,000 students. The faculty, students and graduates of these institutions help create the educated workforce California needs to compete in the global economy.

As president of a private university, I think it is important for people to understand how many low-income, first-generation college students are served by the private nonprofit higher education sector. At my institution, University of the Pacific, 86 percent of our students are from California. Among undergraduates, 40 percent are eligible for federal Pell Grants, meaning that they or their families have an income at or below 250 percent of the poverty line, and one in three receives Cal Grant assistance.

Cal Grants are of special importance. They help make it possible for students of limited means to choose the higher education setting where they are most likely to succeed – whether it’s a community college, California State University campus, UC campus or a private nonprofit institution.

The 75 members of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities and their loyal alumni networks work hard to make sure all deserving students have access to the higher education that best meets their needs and interests. We are expanding academic support and financial aid programs; when a Cal Grant student attends Pacific, we match the grant with private scholarship funds.

We have also been on the front lines to protect the Cal Grant program and the more than 28,000 low- and middle-income California students it supports every year. Through the hard work of legislative leaders, university officials and Cal Grant recipients themselves, the award level was preserved in the current budget and a proposed 11.3 percent cut – the equivalent of more than $1,000 per student – was postponed for one year.

But in his proposed 2015-16 budget, Gov. Jerry Brown is recommending a reduction to grants awarded to new students attending private nonprofit institutions. This would be the third such cut in four years, narrowing choices for larger numbers of academically qualified, low-income students.

The association and our partners are unwavering in our commitment to permanently repeal this proposed reduction and to seek a solution to set the annual maximum grant. This would better assist students and families in planning for college and encourage private nonprofit colleges and universities to enroll more low-income California students.

Achieving this will make a significant difference in the lives of thousands of California students. A private nonprofit university can often provide the best return on investment, particularly for students whose success depends on small classes, easy access to academic counseling and guidance and specialized tutoring and social support.

In California, students have a vast array of private college choices – comprehensive research institutions, specialized professional schools, small and large liberal arts institutions, faith-based schools, campuses that focus on the arts and those that offer nontraditional programs of study. Our member colleges are at the forefront of new and expanding initiatives, including online courses, hybrid programs and expedited degree programs for adult learners.

As we continue to confront the challenges of a changing economy, we encourage decision-makers to think differently and act boldly. There is a path forward to enhance opportunities for all deserving California students, and the state’s independent colleges and universities are a fundamental part of it.

Pamela A. Eibeck is president of University of the Pacific in Stockton and chairwoman of the executive committee of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities.