Friday, April 6, 2018
A Grand Plan for Public Higher Ed Is Aging. Can It Be Reinvented?
Chronicle of Higher Education, Karin Fischer, 4-4-18
Not long ago, Nicholas B. Dirks, a former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, visited Tsinghua University, in Beijing. He had flown halfway around the world to help the institution, one of China’s best, evaluate its approach to undergraduate education. But he found researchers and administrators there anxious to talk about his home state and its nearly 60-year-old plan for higher education.
Six decades on, the California master plan has come to be seen — revered, even — as the blueprint for modern public higher education. In its day, it stood out for its ambition and audacity, so celebrated that its chief architect became a minor celebrity. At its core were a pair of goals previously thought to be antithetical: to provide a good education on a large scale while producing research to advance both the state and society.
The plan embraced mass and merit, access and excellence. It was at once populist and elitist.
"A noble vision," says John R. Thelin, a historian of higher education at the University of Kentucky.
"Revolutionary" is the assessment of Sheldon Rothblatt, a longtime scholar of education at Berkeley.
The plan spawned imitators and inspired the federal Pell Grant program. Leaders from other states trooped to California to study its approach. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, comprising the world’s leading economies, urged its members to adopt "development plans of the California type."
Even now, as Dirks discovered, as China wrestles with how to build world-class universities while educating more of its people, it, too, looks to the master plan for lessons.
"It’s alive and well everywhere," Dirks says. "Everywhere but California."
To be clear, the master plan remains the governing document for higher education in the state. But in the view of Dirks and many others, there has been a hollowing out of much of its promise, as the plan has aged and as economic and political forces have taken their toll. In a sense it is emblematic of American higher education as a whole, long the pacesetter but now scrambling to keep up with current demands. It is a cautionary tale about the wages of success.
While California’s research universities are still highly regarded, they are increasingly out of reach for students; each year, far more high-school graduates meet the academic qualifications for the University of California and the California State University systems than there are places allocated under the master plan.
Their capacity and budgets strained, even the community colleges have turned away students. California was the first state to commit to universal access. It also was the first to lose it.
And many students who do enroll struggle. The share of those who require remediation is high, and on-time graduation rates are low, especially in the Cal State system. The state does a particularly poor job of educating its large and rapidly growing Hispanic population. Just 12 percent of Hispanic adults have bachelor’s degrees, compared with 42 percent of white Californians and 51 percent of Asian descent.
By the end of the next decade, warns the Public Policy Institute of California, the state will be short an estimated 1.1 million college graduates to meet its economic needs. Once heralded for its educated population, California has fallen behind.
How did higher education in the Golden State, long the gold standard, lose its shine?
The master plan was both a response to the needs of its time and place and a product of them. In the wake of Sputnik, on the cusp of the Great Society, America in the early 1960s was a country with a determination to push forward and a willingness to invest in its dreams. This was an era marked by aspirations and institution-building, and the expansion of public higher education fit with a broader confidence in the efficacy of government.
Perhaps no place embodied the period more than California. Thelin, the Kentucky professor, recalls moving from the East Coast to California around the time of the master plan and being struck by what he calls the state’s "secular optimism."
"I cannot fully convey," he says, "the persistent sense among my friends and neighbors that things were going to work out, that everything, always, would be OK."
The plan’s chief architect was Clark Kerr, president of the University of California system. Promoted a year earlier from running the Berkeley campus, he was well suited to the task of drafting a plan that would change the shape and scope of higher education. Not only did he subscribe to the ideals it embodied, but in his pre-administrator days, as a labor economist, he was one of the busiest arbitrators on the West Coast, getting implacable adversaries like longshoremen and shipowners to the negotiating table.
Likewise, Kerr had to hammer out a compromise among public-college sectors that had been squabbling over budgets, missions, and construction of new campuses. The master plan organized the state’s cacophonous and competing web of public colleges into three defined tiers. At the highest academic level were research universities like Berkeley; they would award doctorates and accept only the top eighth of California high-school graduates. Next were the state colleges, focused mainly on undergraduate education; they were to enroll a third of California students. Community colleges would absorb the bulk of the coming baby boom.
The cost of all of this? For the students, nothing. A college degree should be possible for all those with the ability, Kerr believed, not just the means to pay.
The plan had something for everyone: greater autonomy and more coherence for the colleges and a road map for lawmakers to deal with a swelling population without sacrificing quality. In the end, the master plan passed the Legislature in 1960 with just a single dissenting vote — an outcome almost unimaginable in this day, when relationships between lawmakers and higher education are frequently fractious.
A few months after its passage, Kerr — bespectacled, looking slightly bemused — appeared on the cover of Time magazine. "Master Planner," the story’s headline read.
But the sense of harmony was to be short-lived. Berkeley became the center of nationwide student protests over civil rights, free speech, and the Vietnam War, and in 1966, a candidate ran for governor pledging to "clean up the mess" on campus.
Even Ronald Reagan’s advisers thought his anti-University of California campaign was a nonstarter and urged him to tone down his rhetoric. Against their advice, he excoriated administrators for their handling of demonstrations, derided student activists as "way out," and called for college budgets be cut by 10 percent. Berkeley, he suggested, could sell off its rare-books collection to cover the shortfall.
"His message was, here are these kids we busted our tails to create these magnificent universities for," says Patrick M. Callan, a longtime observer of California higher education, "and look what they’re doing."
Reagan won the election. Three weeks after he took office, Kerr was fired by the university’s Board of Regents.
Reagan never explicitly campaigned against the master plan. But his election pulled the thread that started the unraveling of the compact that underpinned it. Why should taxpayers, he asked, subsidize students — and institutions — that may not represent their values?
His position struck a blow to the consensus that college is a public good, and that an educated citizenry is worthy of collective investment. Higher education is, arguably, still trying to reclaim its lost standing.
In California, the next hit would come a decade later.
Like Reagan’s election, Proposition 13, an anti-property-tax ballot initiative overwhelmingly approved by California voters in 1978, wasn’t specifically about the master plan. But its passage nonetheless compromised the plan’s intent.
Led by Howard Jarvis — a retired businessman who adopted the signature line from the popular movie Network, "I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!" — the so-called tax revolt was a frontal assault on the principle that contributing to common services should be a civic priority.
In a memorable interview, Jarvis appeared unbothered by the severe spending reductions his referendum would force on many communities. "The most important thing in this country is not the school system, nor the police department, nor the fire department," he said. "The right to have a home in this country — that’s important."
Approved amid record inflation and spiraling home valuations, the measure caused property-tax revenues to plummet 60 percent almost immediately.
Because Prop 13 rolled back local property taxes, it hit the California Community Colleges system particularly hard, threatening to cut off crucial revenue to the very institutions responsible, under the master plan, for enrolling more than half of all college students in the state.
It also devastated public schools, the feeder into the higher-education system. In the wake of the referendum, California’s per-pupil spending fell from well above average to 42nd in the nation. The master plan had been built on a foundation of top-notch K-12 education, and that system was grievously undermined. Today eight in 10 community-college students and nearly 40 percent of Cal State students require some sort of remediation.
Alarmed, voters returned to the polls a decade later and passed a second referendum, guaranteeing 40 percent of state general-fund spending to public schools and community colleges. However well-intentioned, that had a grave effect on the state’s universities. At the University of California, state support per student, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has fallen from $23,000 before Prop 13’s passage to just $8,000 today. Students and families have had to make up the difference. In fact, one of the few substantive changes since the master plan has been the quiet abandonment of the idea of free college, and the imposition of tuition and fees.
Budgets in all states are a zero-sum game. Money dedicated to other parts of government — schools, health care, prisons — means less for public colleges. And in California, with its bold aims for higher education, the spending shackles imposed by Prop 13, and its subsequent "fixes," have been that much more restrictive.
But if unforeseen external forces weakened the plan, the greatest threats may have come from within. Some of the very systems and structures that Kerr put in place have undercut the plan’s success.
From the outset, the plan assigned an outsized role to community colleges. The reasons were twofold: limiting enrollments at four-year institutions would preserve their selectivity. And it brought the state’s costs way down — at that time, after all, most of the expense of educating a community-college student was borne locally.
"That was the genius of it, because you could meet everyone’s needs and do it relatively cheap," says Simon Marginson, author of The Dream Is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education (University of California Press, 2016). "Community colleges were the linchpin of access."
The plan envisioned that about 55 percent of California students would be enrolled in community colleges. Today, however, it’s closer to 65 percent. California ranks fifth in the nation in the share of its high-school graduates who enroll directly in community colleges, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. It’s 47th in the percentage who start at four-year institutions.
Significantly more students, however, meet the academic qualifications for Cal State and the University of California than enroll. Still, the master plan’s original admissions formula remains in place.
"We have one of the widest doors to access in the community colleges," says Brian Murphy, president of De Anza College, a two-year institution. "But we have one of the narrowest — if not the narrowest — doors to be admitted to a research university in the country."
The emphasis on community colleges made sense in Kerr’s time, when a credential or a two-year degree was more than adequate to secure a good job. In the current economy, though, a bachelor’s degree is often a prerequisite.
It also puts the burden of educating most students on the least well-financed institutions, says Joni E. Finney, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education. The University of California’s per-student allocation is more than double what the community-college system gets from the state.
"There’s a mismatch between where the resources go and where the needs are," Finney says. "And that’s enshrined in the master plan."
The financial strain has jeopardized the access mission of California’s community colleges. Since Prop 13’s passage, two-year institutions have repeatedly slashed enrollments during budgetary shortfalls: by 250,000 in the early 1980s, 170,000 a decade later, another 150,000 when the dot-com bubble burst. During the recession that began in 2008, students often had to spend a semester or more on waiting lists for core courses. (The Cal State system has followed a similar pattern.)
As a result, many students are not getting into college, or not getting through. Fewer than a third of California community-college students earn an associate degree after three years. Of those who started in 2009-10, just 10 percent had transferred to a four-year college within six years.
Such statistics are troubling to many Californians. If the master plan envisioned that many students would start in the community colleges, they weren’t supposed to get stuck there. Students who earned a minimum grade-point average in community-college courses were supposed to gain a spot in a four-year institution; universities were required to allocate a higher share of seats to the upper divisions to accommodate transfers.
Then there’s who is being left behind: California today is a far more diverse state than in Kerr’s day. Two-thirds of Californians between 18 and 24 years of age are members of racial or ethnic minorities. But while four in 10 community-college students are Latino, just a quarter of the students at the University of California are. Likewise, although the state’s research universities have high proportions of low-income students compared with their peers — the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses each enrolls more Pell Grant recipients than all the Ivies combined — they fall short of the share of California public-school students who qualify for free or reduced lunch.
"It’s un-American," says Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity. "It’s un-Californian."
One of the master plan’s greatest flaws is its lack of detail on key subjects. Transfer is critical to the plan’s success, but it didn’t actually map out how that process should happen. The plan didn’t define a common core, specify admissions requirements, or include articulation agreements.
"We’ve set up a system that makes transfer very important, but we don’t have any mechanism for ensuring we do it well," says Colleen V. Moore, assistant director of the Education Insights Center, a think tank in the state. "We don’t even have anyone who asks if we are."
The difficulty is magnified by the plan’s design of three distinct and autonomous college systems. Each of the sectors has, at times, set out to improve the transfer process, but these have been largely discrete efforts rather than a synchronized, statewide strategy. Each of the state’s 114 community colleges had its own articulation arrangements.
The process was streamlined somewhat by the passage, in 2010, of legislation to develop associate degrees for transfer. Students who complete the two-year, 60-credit degree program are guaranteed admission to a Cal State institution as a junior.
Though creation of the associate degree for transfer is a step in the right direction, observers say it has been slow going. Faculty members in the community colleges and Cal State branches have had to come to agreement on the curriculum for a host of majors. And the pathway doesn’t apply to the University of California, although Janet A. Napolitano, the system’s president, said recently that she would be open to exploring ways of guaranteeing transfer.
The complications surrounding transfer are symptomatic of the broader challenge of coordination among three independent systems. While that structure was put in place to ensure differentiated missions, the effect has been to impede collaboration and, at times, seed conflict.
Dan Walters, a longtime newspaper columnist in the state, argues that this encourages the three sectors to see themselves as competitors, particularly for state support. "Talk to any of them off the record," he says, "and they see themselves as rivals, as enemies."
The master plan created a statewide higher-education board, but its authority was deliberately limited and, in 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated it, leaving California as one of just two states without a statewide oversight agency. (The other one is Michigan.)
As a result, the three systems largely operate in their own silos, with little agreement on priorities or ability to respond collectively to issues such as the college readiness of high-school graduates, labor-market volatility, and budgetary downturns.
"For public-policy purposes, the systems might as well be in different states," says Patrick Callan, who served as president of the former National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. When they do work together, he says, it is often "opportunistic" and done to further individual goals. "Collaboration just isn’t in their DNA."
For them to come together, then, to rethink California’s plan for higher education would be a particularly heavy lift. Nor do the sectors have much incentive to change, Callan and others say. While the three systems struggle with statewide priorities, the current governance structure gives them relative freedom to set and pursue their own institutional goals. It codified their turf.
"Someone with four aces," says Penn’s Finney, "doesn’t call for a new deal."
Clark Kerr didn’t intend for the master plan to be set in stone. In the final edition of his classic work, The Uses of the University (Harvard University Press), published in 2001, two years before his death, he wrote about the need for new models to meet the evolving pressures on public higher education.
But Kerr didn’t come to the conclusion that the plan ought to evolve later in life. In fact, the use-by date is right there on its title page: "A Master Plan for Higher Education in California, 1960 to 1975."
Still, all these decades later, the plan remains in place.
A special legislative commission has been named to review the plan, but few observers expect the panel to recommend substantive change. After all, it is the 11th such study to be done since the early 1970s. In an interview, Assemblymember Marc Berman, the commission’s chairman, said he wouldn’t commit himself to any particular changes until it completed its review. But he said he didn’t see his charge as "blowing the master plan up."
Others say it would take the intervention of the governor, who has the leverage of the budget and appointments to university governing boards. But higher-education reform hasn’t been much of a priority in this year’s gubernatorial campaign.
Some advocacy groups, in fact, argue that doing long-range planning is such a herculean task that it makes more sense to leave the master plan in place. "To spend one or two years to come up with a plan that might not be relevant five years in, is that worth it?" says Lande Ajose, executive director of California Competes, an organization that works to improve college completion in the state. Instead, she favors narrowly tailored policy changes, such as legislation creating a new coordinating board, one with more teeth.
But most observers say it’s impossible to fix California’s higher-education problems without fixing the master plan. Some of the issues, particularly around governance, are baked into the plan itself. And the challenges facing the state, like access and completion, are so big and thorny that they can’t be tackled without doing what Kerr did: crafting a comprehensive, far-reaching strategy, a new master plan.
Just as its birth demanded attention, the current state of the plan is instructive beyond California’s borders. It shows what can happen when public investment doesn’t match ambition, when past successes can blind you to current shortcomings.
For all the criticism it comes in for, few see the plan as a failure. It arguably helped maintain the prestige of the state’s research universities, although budget cuts could be eroding that edge. While no state or country adopted the California model in full, its principles of opportunity and access have been widely embraced; Congress took Kerr’s ideas as the basis of the Pell Grant.
When it comes down to it, the problem isn’t that the plan failed. It’s that it succeeded.
"It’s hard to change public policy that fails," Callan says. "It’s even harder to change one that’s worked in many ways."
Thanks to the master plan, generations of Californians have come to believe that a college education is their birthright, their legacy.
It’s a powerful promise, but it has become an empty one. Through neglect and inertia, the plan can no longer do what it says it will. Yet it’s so iconic that it seems impossible to alter.
Source: https://www.chronicle.com/article/A-Grand-Plan-for-Public-Higher/243037 via UC Daily News Clips