A new day for higher education?

Back Commentary Mar 1, 2013 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

For the first time in at least a decade, we have good news regarding California’s colleges and universities.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s new budget gives additional funds to the state’s 3-tier higher education system: an additional $250 million to both the University of California and California State University, and $197 million to California Community Colleges. Those dollars flow from the passage of Proposition 30 last November, which raised taxes to fund education and help balance the state budget.

Keep in mind, of course, that higher education in our state has been slowly dying over the past several years, as repeated budget cuts have led to rising tuition, course limits, faculty and enrollment reductions and lower degree-production rates. Since 2010, lawmakers have sliced away $1.5 billion in funding.

So we have a very long way to go in rebuilding a system that once was the model for the nation but now ranks below many states on such measures as graduation rates.

Still, I find two parts of the governor’s budget proposal especially encouraging. One is a promise to steadily increase funding for the three higher education systems over the next four years.

Another is tying that funding to innovation, pushing for greater efficiency in the systems’ use of resources and effectiveness in educating students. The governor is right to press higher education leaders to move outside the walls of traditional academia, for example, through the use of online courses to reduce costs and increase student access.

Innovation of this sort should be rewarded with greater and greater financial support, particularly for the 112 community colleges, which serve some 2.6 million students. This is where I already see the most innovation — and the most direct link between rebuilding education and rebuilding our economy, especially so-called “middle skill” jobs.

These are the jobs that require one or two years of training beyond high school, that represent the promise of middle-class pay and stability, and which are offered by 70 percent of the private employers in our region (the small businesses).

Even in these recessionary times, some of these positions, such as nurses’ aides, building control systems technicians, medical secretaries and the like, go unfilled because workers don’t have the skills needed. Once recovery begins, the shortage of these workers will be even greater. 

Community colleges have for decades been doing what we most need now: matching students’ talents and skills with employment opportunities, training nontraditional students and serving the special requirements of particular regions.

Our community colleges already have some excellent programs in place — biotechnology at Solano, air traffic control at Sacramento City, health care technology at Cosumnes River and mechatronics at Sierra. The state should encourage and fund even more innovations. We could start by giving schools financial incentives tied to student success rather than paying based on enrollment numbers.

At the institutional level, we could designate selected community colleges to offer a  “gap year” program to address the needs of students who need remedial help, while other schools could expand to offer specialized 4-year degrees, in fields such as nursing and applied technology.

If we can combine true education innovation with stable (albeit reduced) state funding, perhaps we can once more offer the promise of universal post-secondary education to our young people and once more provide the careers and the growing economy to renew the waning California dream.


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