Alliance For Learning: California's Higher-Education Legacy

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Patrick M. Callan is in a tough position.

For the past 16 months, he has been the sharpest critic of California's higher-education system. State lawmakers and higher-education officials are not thinking in the long term, he charges. Rather, they are simply allowing the state's flagging economy and budgetary woes to determine who goes to college by raising tuition and trimming enrollment to help balance the system's finances.

He faults policymakers for not restructuring higher education in a way that trims bureaucracy, maintains access and limits tuition hikes, and makes teaching and learning a more central focus of undergraduate education.

He takes higher education to task for failing to wake up to signals that it's time for reform--such signals as shrinking state budgets, an increasingly diverse student population, and nudges from an elementary-and-secondary-education system that has embarked on a sweeping reform effort focused on outcomes and high standards.

Yet, he is more than a critic--he's a comrade, having spent five years as the vice president of and a senior consultant to the Education Commission of the States and eight years as the chief of the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

So what concerns Callan is that the increasing criticism of higher education from himself and others will cause the already hard-to-approach academy to cover its ears completely.

"Higher education has to look at itself, but my fear is that we get so negative that we get the people that have been doing good things ... so disparaged that we'll set things back,'' Callan says. "Some people have been busting their ass in this vineyard for a long time.''

A Platform for Reform

Callan has been using his position as the executive director of the California Higher Education Policy Center to get his point across. Created in November 1992 with a five-year, $6 million grant from the San Francisco-based James Irvine Foundation, the center is charged with taking a fresh look at the future of the state's system of higher education.

Free of government and university influence, the center, which describes itself as the first of its kind in the nation, has stirred up trouble in a state that long prided itself on a higher-education system that was the envy of all.

"One of the things that has really helped us has been our independence from the university or the state,'' says Joni E. Finney, the center's associate director and one of Callan's former colleagues at the E.C.S. "It has been really critical to the level of success we've had here and in voicing our concerns.''

In its 16 months of operation, center officials have published seven reports--with titles like "Public Policy by Anecdote,'' "On the Brink,'' and "The California Higher Education Policy Vacuum''--that flag the most critical issues facing California higher education and spotlight how decisions in the field are made.

They have started their own quarterly periodical, Crosstalk, which has featured interviews with such respected higher-education thinkers as Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California system; stories on declines in enrollment, student-fee hikes, and minority access; and a forum for higher-education officials to address areas of concern to them or to bite back at their critics.

And they have taken their case to the public via the media with an aggressive public-relations effort. The goal, center officials say, is to engage the people of California in a debate over the direction of the state's system of higher education, whose "world class'' status, they say, is threatened by budget cuts, enrollment declines, and potential limits on access.

"What we're trying to do here is reverse an unhealthy pattern that California has gotten into,'' Callan says. "If the California problem reverses itself ... it has national implications.''

A System in Decline

The "California problem'' is "Callan-speak'' for what he sees as the shortsighted decisionmaking by lawmakers and higher-education officials in reacting to budget crises rather than engaging in long-term strategic and systemic change.

"It seems to me that higher education is like I.B.M., the health-care system, et cetera, that have been seen as national models, but seem to be ones that are in trouble in the early 90's,'' Callan says. "We turned over heaven and hell in the 60's to take care of the baby boomers, and now ... we've been reducing enrollments, raising prices, and, in general, making it harder to go to college.''

Indeed. When the state, led by Kerr, developed its Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960, it served as a model for other states by guaranteeing access to all qualified students and residents. High school graduates could attend schools in the University of California system, schools in the California State University system, or schools in the California community-college system and pay only nominal fees for such noninstructional services as maintaining the student union and athletics.

The combination of guaranteed access to a wide range of two- and four-year institutions of high quality set the pace for universal higher education.

By the early 1980's, however, the annual student fee for California residents attending U.C. campuses passed the $1,000 mark, equaling the tuition at many public, four-year universities around the country.

"The line between instructional and noninstructional has become blurred,'' says Diana Puentes-Michel, a government-relations specialist for the C.P.E.C. "People know full well that fees are going toward instruction.''

Now, young Californians are abandoning their state schools for public institutions elsewhere. Other students who could qualify for four-year colleges in state are instead attending community colleges because of their lower cost.

According to a policy-center report, annual U.C. student fees increased 112 percent between the 1990-91 and 1993-94 academic years to $3,674. C.S.U. fees increased 85 percent during that period and are now $1,590. And community-college fees increased 260 percent during that time and are now $390. Enrollment in the state system fell by more than 200,000 students during the period.

Tuition increases have been coupled with staff cuts. The U.C. system, for example, has trimmed 5,000 positions since the 1986-87 academic year and has not had an increase in its $1.8 billion budget since that time. As a result, teaching loads have increased 8 percent, class sizes are up, and electives have been slashed.

An Unwelcome Report

Last month, the center issued a report that called on state higher-education officials and lawmakers to freeze tuition, maintain open access to high school graduates, and, in general, re-examine the mission of every two- and four-year campus. It was the first report to make actual policy recommendations, and higher-education officials have responded with displeasure.

Mike Lassiter, a spokesman for the University of California system, calls the center's approach to higher-education policy "somewhat simplistic.'' He says the system is already at work on many of the report's recommendations, including reducing overlap and duplication of programs, reviewing the size of the administration, and redefining institutional missions and focusing most institutions on undergraduate education.

Barry Munitz, the chancellor of the California State University system, echoes Lassiter's sentiments. "They've never run academic institutions,'' he says of the center's directors, who wrote the report. "There's a danger of being very naÃive and almost destructive by not knowing how to make academic change.''

While the officials give Callan and Finney credit for raising such important issues as fees, productivity and efficiency, and the state's role, they say the center's directors have focused too much on problems and not enough on solutions.

"What would be helpful would be to have some more in-depth thinking as to what some of the solutions might be,'' Lassiter says.

Munitz also contends that the directors are playing too much to the media.

"I disagree with the notion that the only way they'll get change is to create a stir in the media,'' Munitz says.

The center's reports have gotten a considerable amount of media attention, especially in California. That's important to Callan, who says it's time for a public dialogue--similar to the discussions that spurred on the school-reform movement in the mid-1980's--on what higher education is, who should gain access to it, and who pays for it. Such a consensus also played a key role in developing and implementing the state's higher-education master plan.

Callan also suggests that it is time higher-education officials undergo a little public scrutiny from "outside the box.''

"We make them uneasy,'' he says, with little evident sympathy. "Local school superintendents take more grief in a day than college and university presidents do in a year,'' Callan opines. "They think there should be some deference toward them.''

Vol. 13, Issue 29

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories