Office of Planning and Budgeting

Is Public Higher Ed in CA Showing Evidence of Strain?

The Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University, Sacramento recently released a report titled “Consequences of Neglect: Performance Trends in California Higher Education.” The report claims that, although California is considered the world’s leader in public higher education, the state’s college and university system is closer to average—and may be declining.

The report uses six measures of higher education quality and access—preparation, affordability, participation, completion, benefits, and finance—to measure California’s performance in relation to other states. Their findings, if correct, are troubling:

  • Preparation: The report uses graduation rates, standardized test scores, and the percentage of students taking college preparatory classes to measure preparation for college. According to the report, college preparation in California is worse than most states, particularly in rural and inland areas and for black and Latino students. However, these measures have been steadily improving over the past seven years.
  • Affordability: Without taking into account room and board, the California system ranks high in affordability (largely due to the very low tuition at California community colleges), however, because of the high cost of living in California, affordability is significantly compromised. Furthermore, tuition and fees have been increasing dramatically at UC, CSU, and CCC, which will negatively impact affordability.
  • Participation: One of the highlights for California is that participation in public higher education remains high (California ranks 6th in the percentage of 18-24 year old enrolled in college), though the trend is declining as tuition and fees increase.
  • Completion: Although California ranks 12th in the nation in the number of associate degrees awarded per 100 high school graduates, it ranks only 41st in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded per 100 high school grads. The report suggests focusing efforts on improving the transfer process from California’s two-to four-year institutions.
  • Benefits: The report lists benefits from education in California as average, with high personal income tempered by low proportions of citizens with bachelor’s degrees and very low voter turnout.
  • Finance: State appropriations per student FTE in California are slightly lower than the national average, and local and state funding has been steadily decreasing during and after the Great Recession.

The report urges California’s government to protect their investment in colleges and universities, long considered the best public higher education system in the world. Furthermore, it cautions policymakers not to be blinded by the stand-out performances of a select few California universities, while ignoring the vast majority of California’s higher education institutions that may be struggling.

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