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'Taking Off on Higher Education'

October 19, 1985

I would like to comment on your editorial (Sept. 27), "Taking Off on Higher Education." The principal issues facing higher education in this country involve its quality standards and its accessibility to students who would benefit from the experience. There is danger if, in the dialogues to come, we focus on either issue to the exclusion of the other.

These concerns are dealt with, though not with the prominence they deserve, in the report prepared by President Frank Newman of the Education Commission of the States and issued by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In fact they are central to developing both state and national policies affecting new generations of college-age students.

In California we confront a sea of differences in the college-age population that did not exist when the Legislature adopted the California Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960. There are numerous explanations for this, but most are traceable in some part to migrations from other states and Pacific Rim nations, including Latin America.

The master plan fulfilled its promise to make a place for all high school graduates in public higher education institutions. It succeeded marvelously in this and other respects. But certain assumptions--primarily that similar proportions of students would continue to pursue a high school education, and that California would lead the nation in college and university-educated citizens--have not held true.

Paradoxically, overall university enrollments keep climbing (they will reach all-time highs on several California State University campuses this fall), but so do high school dropout rates. The percentage of recent high school graduates entering college in California in the fall 1984 term fell to 56%, a new low.

From the 1980 census and other sources we learn that Californians are by no means America's most educated people. We trail several states, including Alaska and Hawaii. Some 19.4% of Californians have completed four or more years of college, compared with a high of 23% in Colorado. Other measures tell us that college graduation rises in California would be increased 20% to 30% if the national average were to be equaled.

From this it follows that California, despite its excellent higher education provisions, must seriously consider whether to permit the gulf between an educated elite and the greater mass of society to keep on widening. If the answer is no (and I prayerfully hope that this is not so), then little needs to be done. If, however, the decision is to close the gap, much must happen.

Newman's report is at its most helpful in this respect. In its call for a reexamination it tells Californians, and audiences across the country, to look anew at higher education in terms of building a "national resurgence" with a strong civic ethic. Goals should be pursued "for a truly effective liberal education, for active involvement of students in their own learning, (and) for the development of research and technology that is at the cutting edge of world scholarship.

Quality and standards are the bedrock of this. Universities must be true mind-stretchers, building on learning acquired by students in elementary and secondary schools without having to duplicate these experiences. On the CSU's 19 campuses we have set annual goals to reduce the needs for remedial programs, but we are also committed to working on several fronts to raise the academic preparation of high school students who will be accepted as CSU freshmen.

CSU prepares about half of California's teachers. By restructuring requirements for admission to (and exit from) teacher education programs, and setting other new standards, we will provide better teachers for public schools. We strive to test students earlier in high school about their academic readiness for college, and to advise them earlier about what is needed for admission. Cal State Northridge's minority engineering program, appropriately cited in the Newman report, is one of several such activities within the CSU system.

"Steps-to-Colleges" gives promising under-represented minority high school students the opportunity to enroll in university courses while completing their senior year in high school. About 6,000 educationally or economically disadvantaged students enter the CSU each year through Educational Opportunity Programs. Summer bridge transition programs for incoming freshmen and community college transfer students brought 3,000 new students onto our campuses last June, July and August.

California is struggling with the issues of standards and access on several fronts, including a 17-member Commission to Review the Master Plan. We are encouraged by the commission's progress, though full solutions appear to be several years away. CSU's board of trustees is assembling a mission statement that is expected to add to our emphasis on service and research. There will be new attention to graduate programs and to enrollment planning and development.

A fair and careful reading of the Carnegie Foundation report suggests that California is doing many things right. The report provides the public with a constructive focus on the reform movement in higher education, and will assist considerably in the dialogue.



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