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Close to Home: Who's guarding the higher education house?

Higher education in California is very big — and very important. Public higher education — the 112 community colleges, 23 state universities and 10 campuses of the University of California — currently involves $13 billion in the state budget (about 12 percent) and serves 1.7 million full-time equivalent students. An enterprise of this size and significance would require some oversight and coordination.

Indeed, California is exceptional in this regard because at this time we have no authority to carry out these important duties. (Forty-eight states do, Michigan being the other state with no oversight capacity).

Since soon after the creation of the California Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960, we did have such an agency, known most recently as the California Postsecondary Education Commission. However, with the 2011 budget, Gov. Jerry Brown defunded CPEC, saving $2 million. Ironically, this was a good decision — and not because of the paltry sum involved. Over the past couple of decades, this commission had become ineffective largely, most observers believe, because the three public higher education systems wielded excessive influence within it.

However, eliminating an ineffective agency does not eliminate the need for an effective one. With demand for higher education high and growing, the need for an increasingly educated workforce a necessity for healthy economic growth, and the inability of state government to fund all of the services the public would like, making the best use of available higher education resources is extraordinarily important. We can learn from our own experience and that of other states and design an organization — let's call it the Agency — that suits California at this time. The exact structure and organizational details can certainly be worked out by appropriate authorities, but an effective Agency will reflect key principles.

First, the Agency must receive from the state Legislature and the governor clear overarching goals for higher education. To some extent these were contained in the master plan, but the whole plan is now woefully out of date and offers little guidance with regard to the expected outcomes from higher education in support of state priorities.

To her great credit, state Sen. Carol Liu, D-Glendale, has been pushing legislation to this end, and I hope she is successful. It would be for the Agency to develop more detailed goals for each higher education segment, with the metrics necessary to monitor their achievement.

Second, the Agency must have a clear scope of authority. Part of its mandate would be to promote efficiency across the public segments of higher education and to develop policies and accountability systems to this end. It must have enforcement capability and, thus, the responsibility to review and recommend proposals for major programs and facilities such that wise use is made of public money; similarly, coordination across sectors such as transitions from k-12 to postsecondary education and transfer between two- and four-year institutions would be worthy of the Agency's scrutiny.

Third, the Agency must operate independently of higher education institutions. To do this, the ultimate decision-makers — the board of directors — must have as a first loyalty the broad interests of the state. This board must be supported by a professional staff that is appropriate in both size and expertise. (It is worth noting that many states employ a structure without a board, relying instead exclusively on the expertise of seasoned staff.) The complexities within California higher education are many and in some cases unique; the staff of the Agency must be the match for this reality.

Well, we might have some good news. AB 1348 by Assemblyman John P?ez has passed the Assembly and is awaiting consideration in the state Senate. It would create the California Higher Education Authority. It is still subject to amendment and clarifications, but its basic features appear promising.

This bill by itself cannot do much with regard to finding strong leadership. It does specify that the authority would develop goals for public higher education (this at least recognizes the need for goals, though these must ultimately be endorsed by the highest state authorities). Its language with regard to scope of authority is reasonable and the membership of its governing board appears to be appropriate.


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