What the latest survey of Californians on higher education didn't ask: a lot

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

The most interesting things about the latest survey of Californians’ views about the state’s system of higher education are the issues it didn’t address.

The survey, conducted by PPIC (the Public Policy Institute of California) and released last week, found – again – that a great majority of us believed that the state was underfunding its public colleges and universities. But – again, again – it also found that we weren’t willing to pay higher taxes or approve of higher tuition to make up for it. So what else is new?

Community college fees remain low

PPIC pollsters didn’t make clear to those it questioned that while all the attention was going to the rising tuition at the University of California and the California State University (CSU), fees at the state’s community colleges, though also rising, are still the lowest in the country and that low-income students get waivers for all fees. It made no distinction among the tuition and fees charged by the three segments.

If tuition at the two-year institutions were higher, a great many students would be eligible for federal grants or tax write-offs they can’t get now. In effect, the state’s low tuition policy is costing California many millions in federal money.

It didn’t ask whether Californians agreed with the protesting students and university employees at UC and CSU that university administrators were overpaid and over-perked. It didn’t ask whether in a time of fiscal crisis, professors at the University of California should be asked to carry heavier teaching loads than they do now. It didn’t address the dismally low student completion rate at the community colleges.

The survey asked whether respondents were “concerned” about the “overall quality” of education in each of the three segments of the state’s higher education system – they say they are – but gave no indication of whether that was just an expression of general grumpiness, like people’s views that the system was going in “the wrong direction,” or whether it pointed to anything specific.

Polls do disservice to a larger dialogue

There are a great many issues in higher education, as in many other things, which can’t be addressed in an opinion survey. But poll reports on a narrow range of questions, many of them getting predictable responses, also have the unfortunate effect of narrowing both media coverage and the general understanding of, and conversation about, difficult issues.

On higher education, the list of major issues, debates, and questions becomes increasingly crucial for people who seem to agree that, as one of them said, “the University’s funding from the state will not recover in the foreseeable future. UC will be lucky to hold on to the number of dollars that it now receives.”

So there’s increasing interest, among other things, in modifying the 50-year-old Master Plan, whose guarantee of low fees is already a dead letter, and perhaps scrapping it altogether.

Among the ideas: Decentralize UC, reducing the scope and functions of the central administration and devolving more authority and accountability to the campuses – possibly even abolishing the regents altogether and putting each campus under its own board of trustees. Although it’s a proposal that’s been kicking around for years, it creates the danger of  ten market-driven enterprises jockeying for student-customers and, abetted by local promoters and legislators, fiercely lobbying Sacramento for more regional pork. It’s already done now, but it could get worse.

Decentralize UC funding?

Some thoughtful people have also proposed that a much larger share of state funding go directly to students – and much less directly to the institutions – in the form of financial aid. That would obviously give the students-cum-clients more clout and force the institutions to be more responsive to their wishes. But it could easily also bring the marketing culture that already dominates much of higher education – the fancy gyms and student unions, the pandering to students who regard themselves as customers – to UC.

But the rigid Berkeley model for UC, endlessly trying to replicate Berkeley or UCLA in creating still more research universities and pinning each campus into the same institutional formula with roughly the same faculty pay and student tuition scales and academic programs, may be both financially unsustainable and educationally stultifying. High-quality education is available at countless colleges that are not research universities.

Equally important – and consistent with the proposals for decentralization – are growing calls for regional compacts among the local UC campus, two or the three CSU campuses, and as many as 10 or more community colleges: agreements to offer common courses in the first two years and give common academic credit wherever the student eventually chooses to go.

The ongoing unwillingness of some four-year universities, UC especially, to recognize community college courses with the same name and catalog description as their own courses and the general inconsistency in courses among the three segments is a frustrating impediment to countless students and an indefensible barrier to their ability to get a four-year degree. Creating common courses with all the resources that modern technology makes available would not just help overcome those barriers but lead to more efficient use of resources. It might even make for better courses.

Not all those issues can be addressed in opinion surveys. But there are all manner of other ways they can be raised and the public discussion broadened. This survey did just the opposite.

This column also appeared in today’s California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com). Peter Schrag 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 latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report, and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

Filed under: College & Careers, Commentary, Community Colleges



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2 Responses to “What the latest survey of Californians on higher education didn't ask: a lot”

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  1. el on Nov 21, 2011 at 4:37 pm11/21/2011 4:37 pm

    • 000

    I realize that high tuition is in part intended to capture more money from wealthy students and in some cases some federal aid, but I think that while there’s a case to be made for that strategy, that it’s not without pitfalls, especially when every college option is going that way. FAFSA is a good instrument, but there are always families who end up not showing need via FAFSA but who will not or cannot come up with the cash for tuition. It’s also a factor for kids who are estranged from their parents or who are working to support themselves. I’m not sure if FAFSA still has a heavy penalty for owning real estate that has escalated in value. And I’m not sure if UC financial aid offices now have more discretionary funds than they once did to help out some of those kids.
    If UC believes that they are addressing the problem sufficiently via student aid, it might help them to have some sample scenarios of student obligation based on family income and circumstances.

  2. Fred Jones on Nov 21, 2011 at 10:24 am11/21/2011 10:24 am

    • 000

    I agree with Mr. Schrag re: the quality of the poll … I read the whole report hoping to gain some valuable insights into policy/budgetary implications, but was disappointed to find out it was just another effort to say more of the same (e.g., “We need more money for colleges … more students for colleges … yada yada”).

    It’s time to start asking tougher questions of registered voters, and more detailed inquiries as to their preferences and priorities in a time of dwindling public resources.  It’s time we move beyond bumper-sticker political deliberations.

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