Saturday, February 20, 2010

Signs of the apocalypse, part 1

This week I had the opportunity to testify at a heaing of the Joint Committee on the Master Plan for Higher Education of the California Legislature.  This hearing, on Affordability and Student Aid, was the third held by the committee, which is conducting its work as the Master Plan celebrates its 50th anniversary.

In a post on the blog 21st Century Scholar, written before this hearing, I questioned whether the Master Plan -- widely recognized as having created the best public higher education system in the country -- was in fact dead.  The State of California has managed to get itself in such a fiscal mess that it is unlikely that it can ever pull itself out.  It's not fair to just blame the current recession, which admittedly has battered California as much as any state. The fiscal problems, however, are symptomatic of a three-decade long antitax movement in California that has made it difficult for the legislature and governors to come up with enough funds to adequately fund the University of California, California State University, and the state's community colleges.

I'm sorry to report that, after sitting through part of the hearing this week, it is unlikely that this Joint Committee is going to be able to resolve the problems facing higher education in California.  It is clear that the fiscal constraints facing the state are unlikely to be removed without large-scale changes to the political structures there.  This would include changing laws and initiative petitions that have restricted the ability of the legislature and governors to raise the tax revenues necessary to support a world-class higher education system.  It would likely also require changing the earmarking of parts of the state budget to purposes such as K-12 education and corrections, both of which leave little flexibility for funding higher education when federal mandates such as Medicaid spending are taken into account.

I'm afraid that the reality is that the future will bring two things.  First, public higher education in California will be more expensive for this and future generations of Californians than those who had benefited from the first four decades or so of the Master Plan.  While UC and CSU have taken steps to make institutional grants available to financially-needy students (to supplement those funds available through Cal Grants and federal aid), it will likely be a challenge for them to maintain these commitments down the road.  Like many other public institutions, they will face immense pressure to address issues of middle-income (and even upper-income) affordability, at the expense of maintaining a commitment to access for poorer students. In a piece I wrote for The Century Foundation in 2003, I demonstrated how the most selective campuses of the UC system did a better job enrolling Pell Grant recipients than their peers around the country.  It is unlikely they will be able to continue this commitment in the future.

Second, the three sectors are likely to face a Hobson's choice of either allowing the quality of their institutions to degrade, or to restrict access.  I point out in my testimony that six of the UC campuses are ranked in the top 50 national universities, public and private, by U.S. News & World Report, and in the top 200 internationally by the Times Higher Education in London.  Starved of the necessary resources to maintain this level of quality, it will have to decrease.  Alternatively, the institutions could maintain quality, but at the expense of enrolling fewer students.  In the worst case scenario, quality would erode and access would be constricted.

I don't envy the task in front of the Joint Committee, or that of the administrators and faculty in the three sectors in California.  There are no easy solutions, other than going back to the public and voters in California and presenting them with the likely outcome if the existing antitax mentality continues.  And I am afraid of how the public will react to that proposition.

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