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PD Editorial: Are legislators serious about higher ed?

Published: Friday, January 18, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 at 4:46 p.m.

Democrats and Republicans in Sacramento seldom agree on anything, but both parties are suddenly professing opposition to fee hikes for university students.

It's about time — but it isn't very convincing.

Where have they been for the past five years? California State University's tuition has doubled since 2007. At the University of California, fees are up 84 percent. For community college students, they've gone up 80 percent.

With voter approval of Proposition 30, additional fee hikes for undergraduates have been canceled. Now, some legislators are proposing to freeze tuition rates for as long as seven years.

Students and their families deserve a break. But if state legislators are serious about addressing higher education, they need to do more than promise to hold the line on tuition after allowing it to rise precipitously.

California's economy is fueled by knowledge. It requires college-educated workers ready to fill jobs in management, technology, health services and other emerging fields.

If the Golden State's colleges and universities are engines for economic growth, and we believe they are, they're sputtering and need a tune-up if they're to meet the needs of employers. Steep fee increases haven't offset state funding cuts, so students are paying more, and many are borrowing more, yet they're struggling to graduate.

At CSU, only 16 percent of students earn a degree in four years. In the community college system, just 30 percent complete a two-year program within six years. UC is a little better, with 60 percent of students finishing within four years.

It would be easy for legislators to debate a one-year freeze, a four-year freeze, a seven-year freeze. But if the goal is economic growth, they should focus on the bigger challenges of transforming California's universities — improving access and raising graduation rates.

To improve those numbers without more fee increases, colleges and universities must control administrative costs — beginning with the enormous salaries paid to presidents and chancellors — and try some new approaches to teaching.

Gov. Jerry Brown is touting online classes to improve access. On Tuesday, he visited San Jose State, where a startup company will offer low-cost online classes in basic math, algebra and statistics. A day later, he secured a promise from UC regents to expand online offerings, and he's expected to press the issue next week when he meets with CSU trustees.

Teaching entry-level classes online is a promising idea. It would be better still if UC, CSU and the community colleges agreed on the same basic courses, so students can seamlessly transfer credits from two-year to four-year schools or between university campuses.

Brown also wants students to help raise the graduation rate. He is proposing to end tuition subsidies for students once they complete 150 percent of the credits required to earn a degree or transfer from a community college to a four-year school.

Brown may not have all the right answers, but he is asking good questions. Here's one of ours: Will legislators get engaged, or will they keep looking for easy headlines?

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