Experts warn that California needs to significantly boost the number of undergraduate degrees granted each year in order to turn around the state's economy and help the country remain competitive.
But a new report [PDF] from Sacramento State University's Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy says the state's public higher education segments are not on track to meet that goal.
Also, the report finds the UC, CSU and community colleges have no guidance on how to divide increasingly precious state resources among themselves to produce the necessary degrees.
The report insists California needs a more deliberate strategy, rather than the current approach to education finance policy, which involves keeping costs in line with what they’ve always been, cutting spending around the edges and raising revenue from other sources – mostly tuition.
To illustrate the types of questions policymakers ought to be asking, researchers crunched data comparing California’s college systems with each other and with their counterparts nationwide, using figures from the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability.
Among the findings: The California Community Colleges spend the least by far on education and related costs compared with the University of California and California State University. The community colleges also spend less per full-time equivalent student when compared with the rest of the nation.
Source: Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy
And yet, as the largest and most accessible college system in California, the community colleges will have to contribute the most to the state’s need for more degrees, the report said.
But when researchers looked at how much each system spends per completion – a measure of productivity – the California Community Colleges spent 40 percent more than the national average for public associates institutions. Completion occurs when a student earns a degree or a certificate and does not include students who transfer.
Source: Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy
By the report’s measure, the community colleges spent $65,474 per degree or certificate, compared with the national average of $46,759 for similar colleges.
“It’s not because they spend a lot of money,” said Nancy Shulock, the report’s lead author. “They don’t issue a lot of certificates and degrees.”
The community colleges’ mission of open access for all constrains its productivity, the report said. It leads to enrollment – and state subsidies – for people who attend part time or sporadically and have no interest in or need for a college credential.
They also serve many dramatically underprepared students who need a great deal of remedial education before they can even begin taking college-level classes.
Yet accurately comparing what the community colleges spend on education-related costs with the CSU system and particularly the UC system is impossible without further transparency, the report said.
“Neither segment has ever been willing or forced to disaggregate undergraduate from graduate spending,” the report said.
CSU spokesman Michael Uhlenkamp said it's true that the system does not separate undergraduate education spending as part of its current budget process, but could find a way to do it if lawmakers asked for the data.
Yet Steve Boilard, director of higher education for the Legislative Analyst's Office, said that CSU and UC have been asked to provide that data for years and that it would be informative for policy analysis.
"Going back eight or nine years, there's been a number of questions from our office, (the California Postsecondary Education Commission) and legislative staff trying to disaggregate graduate spending for UC or CSU," he said. "And continually, the universities have insisted that they are unable to separate those costs out."
So who in California would do more fiscal analysis and coordinate higher education policy in the state? Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated the California Postsecondary Education Commission with a line-item veto. Several reports had criticized the agency as ineffective, but now the state has no formal higher education commission.
While there is no definitive answer, the informal California Education Round Table is talking about possibly working to coordinate planning among the UC, CSU and community colleges, as well as K-12 schools, said Joe Radding, who oversees college preparation programs for the California Department of Education.
The roundtable is an informal volunteer group that includes state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, UC President Mark G. Yudof, CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed, Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott and Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities President Jonathan Brown.
Radding said Torlakson has convened this year’s meetings of the roundtable, and it’s possible the group will have a plan prepared for the governor and Legislature on statewide education planning by the end of the fiscal year.
Still, the group is not formal and does not hold public meetings. Radding said that despite those factors, the roundtable could contribute to meaningful reform.
“I think it has potential,” he said. “Is it the ultimate solution? Maybe not.”
Meanwhile, the Legislative Analyst's Office is preparing a report for the Legislature, due Jan. 1, with recommendations on the structure and duties of a statewide higher education coordinating body for California. Boilard said that while the UC, CSU and community colleges could achieve some goals through voluntary collaboration, the state needs independent oversight.
Ultimately, report author Shulock said, she wants decision-makers in California to get past the same old conversation about higher education funding and take steps to find out what quality education costs and how resources should be divvied up.
“We’re hoping to get out of the spin cycle, where legislators say. ‘Your costs are high. Lower your costs.’ And (education officials) say, ‘That will erode quality,’ ” Shulock said. “Maybe that’s true, but we don’t know.”