UC’s Clouded Vision For The Future5 min read

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In releasing its first round of ideas about the future size and shape of the University of California last week, a high-level UC commission did what such academic panels often do best – brought forth a modest list of proposals that were as safe as they were predictable.

Many of those ideas have long been discussed, not only in California but in many other places where public universities are stressed by rising enrollment and shrinking taxpayer support. They confirm again the old saying that changing a curriculum (or any other college program) is like moving a cemetery.

To be sure, the Commission,  headed by regents chairman Russell Gould and UC President Mark Yudof, though charged with “developing a new vision” for UC, emphasized that  these recommendation were “first round,” proposals  subject to “further research and discussion.”  So maybe there’ll be more boldness ahead. Among the proposals on the first list: 

(1)    Increase the proportion of out-of-state students, who pay much higher tuition than residents and who could, if they included more foreign students, bring a more cosmopolitan  outlook to the system’s ten campuses
(2)    “Streamline” the time to more undergraduate degrees to three years with required summer courses and high school advance placement programs, which would lower costs and create additional campus space.
(3)    Add more online courses. Some reformers even suggested creation of an online “campus” that would offer a full program for students who would only spend short periods of time with tutors on a campus.
(4)    Create a more reliable multi-year fee (read tuition) schedule that would make it easier for students and their parents to plan their college careers.

The tentative ideas also include at least consideration of “the feasibility of campuses charging different student fees.” Eventually treating the competitive, high-prestige campuses like Berkeley and UCLA differently from the others would likely entail brutal battles both within UC and in Sacramento. But it’s an idea that reflects reality and deserves serious consideration. 

What the list does not include – not so far at any rate –is any suggestion about the elimination of redundant or out-dated programs, much less shutting down one or more of UC’s marginal campuses – a proposal which would probably never be enacted but could generate a lot of attention to UC’s plight, particularly in Sacramento.

Nor does it include a perennial political favorite in hard times – increasing faculty teaching loads. But if the panels working on various visionary ideas for UC’s future are ready to consider making distinctions between campuses and/or programs in tuition, why not greater differentials in teaching loads?

Nor does it seem to say a word about strengthening education in the K-12 schools where inadequate resources and programs deprive tens of thousands of young Californians from even getting an opportunity to go to college – any college.

The commission’s list of ideas does include Yudof’s laudable call for recognition by the federal government of the hard fact that if the nation is to compete in education and technology with China, India and other countries whose national governments heavily subsidize their universities , the states can’t be expected to bear the financial burden alone. The United States, which not long ago led the world in the percentage of young adults who’d graduated from college, is now roughly 14th on the list, and falling further behind every year.
Yudof would like the feds to augment the Pell Grants that now go to low income students with additional funds to reward colleges and universities that admit and graduate low income students.

As ever, the proposals also pay lip service to efficiencies and to “improving the community college transfer function by streamlining lower-division major requirements and enhancing on line advising tools.” Whether that would eventually lead to a shift to a greater proportion of junior and seniors at UC with more students beginning at the community colleges is hardly certain. .

What is certain is that while many education experts have long pushed for such a shift, at a time when the  community colleges themselves are strapped and reducing class openings, pushing many more people into the junior colleges is  even less likely than it would be in good financial times.

Here again, changes are in order. If the community colleges, whose current fees are far and away the lowest in the country raised them from the present $26 a unit (roughly $780 a year for a full load) to the $60 recommended by the Legislative Analyst, their students would be eligible for a roughly equal amount in additional federal aid in grants and tax breaks, the colleges would be better funded to the tune of $500 million a year and very few students would be paying more.

So far the community colleges, arguing that higher sticker prices would drive students away, have fiercely resisted such a move. But the reduction in class offerings probably drives just as many away now – maybe more.
In California’s three-tier public higher education system, every segment has an impact not only on the two others but on the K12 schools as well. And vice-versa. 

Anything that professes to be visionary in one segment therefore has to address the problems and promises of the others. That’s how we got the widely admired master plan. When you’re trying to visualize the future, a stronger dose of vision and a little less inertia would be not be out of order.

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America will be published in 2010.

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