California’s Higher Ed Woes Are Cause for Concern for the Rest of the Country

A recent article (for subscribers) in The Chronicle of Higher Education examines California’s public university system—which was once a shining beacon for the country (and a major driver of the state’s growing economy), but is increasingly plagued by overcrowding and budget troubles.

Higher education | Higher ed

Passed in 1960, the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education aimed to give a free or affordable college education to every eligible state resident who sought one, writes Karin Fischer, a writer for the newspaper. The plan was structured on tiers: the research universities of the University of California system would admit the top eighth of high-school grads, the California State University campuses would take the top third of applicants, and California’s two-year community colleges would have an open-door policy, she explains.

Back then, it made sense to make community colleges the linchpin, since a two-year degree was enough to land a good job, Fischer writes. But those days are gone. Four-year colleges are the new pipeline to employment, yet the eligibility formula remains much the same. But without affordable access to four-year colleges, low-income and minority students may be left behind, she writes.

And that’s, unfortunately, what’s happening. According to a recent NPR article by Claudio Sanchez, of the 2.8 million students in college in California today, two-thirds are members of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

He notes that a whopping 43% of all college students in California are Latino. But while they’ve made inroads at colleges, they still earn bachelor’s degrees at lower rates than their peers. His article points to a new report by the Campaign for College Opportunity, which suggests that the lack of faculty and administrators who look like them could be partly to blame for that.

Another factor, though, is surely where they go to school. Fischer points out that only about a quarter of the state’s four-year students are Latino, while a disproportionate share of them—about 40%—attend community colleges, which are more likely to be overpopulated and underfunded.

College affordability | Higher educationStudents who earn a minimum grade-point average in community-college courses were supposed to be able to transfer to public four-year colleges. But thanks to disparate requirements and a complicated transfer process, few actually manage to do so, Fischer writes.

Capacity is another issue. Last year, the CSU system shut out more eligible students than ever —over 30,000—despite the state’s master plan requiring that it admit them, a San Francisco Chronicle article noted in January. The UC system has likewise been inundated with more qualified applicants than it can handle, according to a recent Inside Higher Ed article, which observed that five UC campuses got over 100,000 applications each for the coming fall. In contrast, Harvard received about 40,000 last year.


Meanwhile, state support for higher education isn’t what it once was. According to a Public Policy Institute of California report, the Golden State currently “invests less per student (adjusted for inflation) at its public universities than it did 30 years ago.”

Higher education | Higher ed

That started with Ronald Reagan, says Karin Fischer, a writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the aforementioned piece. Elected governor of California in 1966—in the midst of countrywide student rallies over civil rights, free speech, and the Vietnam War—it was Reagan who challenged the state’s social compact by asking, “Why should taxpayers subsidize students—and institutions—that may not represent their values?,” Fischer writes.

Reagan also began shifting higher-education costs from the state onto students and their families, she adds. In 1978, the passage of Proposition 13, which cut property taxes on which the state’s public K-12 and higher-education systems relied heavily, delivered another blow.

As state investment sank, tuition and fees grew to bridge the gap. During the Great Recession, UC and CSU raised them to compensate for state funding cuts, but the number of students continued to swell, according to a report by researchers at the PPIC.

Tuition stayed level from 2011 to 2017, but fees rose 34% at CSU and 21% at UC during the same period, and both systems have hiked tuition for the 2017-18 academic year, the researchers note.

Meanwhile, in an effort to offset rising prices, the state has increased financial aid. But cost remains an issue for low-income students (a large share of whom are Latino), the researchers write, noting that growing number of them are struggling to earn degrees without becoming overburdened by debt.

But more on that next time.

Compiled and written by Gabriela Montell, UnidosUS Communications Manager