Planning for mastery again in California higher ed

Jim Wunderman
Jim Wunderman

“California can and will, as in the past and present, provide adequate support for an efficient program of higher education designed to meet fully the rapidly changing needs of society.”

No, that is not a joint press release from University of California President Janet Napolitano and Gov. Jerry Brown, but a quote from the Master Plan for Higher Education for California from more than 50 years ago. The Master Plan is one of the most ambitious and forward-looking documents in California’s history. We’ve been here before and it is time to recommit to the importance of higher education for California again instead of fighting every year over budget allocations and tuition increases.

The Bay Area Council Economic Institute’s recently released report, “Reforming California Public Higher Education for the 21st Century,” is a great place to start. The report makes a compelling case to revisit the Master Plan to close the education skills gap and ensure equity, opportunity and California’s future prosperity.

The world has obviously changed dramatically in the last 50 years. Just to take three examples highlighted in the report:

▪ When the Master Plan was written, 11 percent of jobs were filled by workers with at least a bachelor’s degree – today it is more than one-third and growing.

▪ In 1960, 82 percent of high school graduates were non-Hispanic whites; today it is 28 percent.

▪ In 1977, 18 percent of the state’s budget went to higher education; today, it is 11.6 percent.

Technology and the market for educational services are changing faster than the system is responding, and without dramatic changes, the gap will widen – leaving the state’s economic future at risk.

Among the key recommendations in the report are to set some specific goals for our public education system and hold it accountable for outcomes such as persistence rates, transfer success, completion rates and number of low-income and minority students served. Those higher objectives would come with stabilized and strengthened state support tied to results and more flexible governance, and would necessitate a closer link between academic offerings and workforce needs.

We are at a crucial time to debate and resolve how we address the issues and consider the recommendations. As the report says, reform needs to extend beyond marginal budgetary or program fixes, and institutional resistance to change is likely. It will come only with strong leadership from policymakers in Sacramento and leaders in higher education, and a strong engagement by the state’s business community whose future workforce depends on the success of the public education system.

As the new Legislature convenes and Brown produces his budget, they should call for a rapid review of the public higher education system and engage the state in a deliberative discussion on how we get there from here. The governor called for a task force to examine higher education productivity. He should convene it outside of this year’s budget process and have it report back by the end of the year. It should have representation from employers, look at best practices from other states and seek answers to important questions like:

▪ What are aggressive goals for the system and how can public funding encourage meeting them? For example, should funding be tied to in-state graduates, not seat time (perhaps adjusted up for high-demand/high-cost majors like STEM or for disadvantaged students as in K-12’s Local Control Funding Formula)?

▪ What is the role of online education (not just massive open online courses, known as MOOCs) and competency-based advancement? Western Governor’s University (the largest nonprofit higher education institution in the country) uses both and is self-sustaining, charging $6,000 a year for tuition, books and a mentor. There are lessons to be learned from them.

▪ How should we modernize the governance and administrative rules of the systems to encourage more innovation, efficiency and alignment with each other and regional workforce needs?

Fifty years ago, Gov. Pat Brown signed the Master Plan, putting in place a public higher education system that led the nation for decades. It is time to plan for mastery again.

Lenny Mendonca is a co-chair of California Forward. Jim Wunderman is president and CEO of the Bay Area Council.