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Higher Education in California: Requiring New Quality Control

April 03, 1988|David Glidden | David Glidden is a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside

RIVERSIDE — The original California Master Plan for Higher Education had become unstable, like a bulging earthquake fault. State institutions for post-secondary education had come to overlap each other. As a consequence, students have been overrunning the University of California--so much so there's talk of building a new campus. In July, 1987, "The Master Plan Renewed" was published, in the nick of time. The commission to review the plan recommended various realignments and adjustments, with a view toward unified and equitable higher education, with quality and efficiency for all. Easier said than done.

From the point of view of any single campus, the more students the merrier. Tax dollars are allocated according to the numbers--in particular, numbers of students. Typically, entry-level courses are the bread-and-butter staples to justify expansion of programs and resources. So, freshman bodies are important. The Master Plan provided a necessary policing function to inhibit duplication at the entry level, to ensure that competition for state revenues would not destroy any segment of the system.

All public post-secondary education in California is divided in three parts. The nine-campus University of California is a research institution; its undergraduate, graduate and professional programs are all supposed to point in that direction. Accordingly, UC has the sole public authority to award doctoral degrees.

The 19 campuses of the California State University system primarily function as teaching institutions for undergraduates and graduate students, through the master's level. Research at CSU is supposed to support this teaching mission, especially with a view toward teacher education in elementary and secondary schools.

Finally, more than 100 California Community Colleges are primarily designed to play a dual role, to provide vocational instruction for those who will not go on to four-year schools and to provide academic preparation at the freshman and sophomore levels for those who will.

Only the top 12.5% of California high school graduates are eligible for admission as UC freshmen, according to the original Master Plan. The top 33% are eligible for CSU, while all high school graduates are admissible to the community colleges. Those who might not have done well enough in high school for entry to CSU or UC would have a second chance, by performing well enough in community colleges, for transfer to the four-year systems. Others, eligible for CSU or UC, may want to attend community colleges first, for academic or financial reasons.

Recently, this plan has come undone. Various campuses within CSU behave more and more like research institutions, clamoring to grant the Ph.D., while the University of California has teacher training programs of its own. Meanwhile, the UC system has been taking in more freshmen who once would have first attended community colleges. UC campuses now see themselves as autonomous four-year schools rather than places to transfer to in the junior year.

For 20 years UC campuses took in roughly 5% of those students admissible as freshmen. Now they take 8%, resulting in an all-time abundance of student bodies, even though the number of high school graduates in California will continue to decline until the 1990s. Freshmen and sophomores in 1986 made up approximately 46% of UC undergraduate enrollment, compared to 39% at CSU. Consequently, the commission on the Master Plan recommended that the University of California reduce lower division enrollment to not more than 40% while simultaneously augmenting the role of community college transfers. This past year the numbers of transfers have indeed gone up. That's good. Relying more on transfers would keep the Master Plan intact and reduce the flood of UC freshmen.

It's not enough to march students into classrooms; there must be quality controls to ensure that the degrees are worth having and that the enrolled students will have a real chance to earn them. There is also a need for equity, so that the profile of college graduates will reflect the state's ethnic diversity and not reflect prejudice against the poor or handicapped. Without quality and equity, higher education is not worth all those taxes.

Last year half the UC entering freshmen failed the so-called Subject A exam, which tests their proficiency at college-level writing. Half of California's supposedly best and brightest high school students require remedial work before they can begin to take freshman English composition. Many students could be better prepared for UC work by first attending a community college, regardless of their high school standings.

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