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Ventura County Perspective | FUNDING STUDENTS FIRST

CSU Plan Ignores Private Colleges

Education: Contrary to what Cal State backers say, independent schools are not 'unaffordable.'

September 21, 1997|PAMELA M. JOLICOEUR | Pamela M. Jolicoeur is provost and dean of the faculty at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks

County leaders recently converged in Long Beach to urge California State University trustees to move ahead with the plan for a four-year university for Ventura County.

The case they made was a compelling one: Ventura County lags behind California counties of comparable size and wealth in sending students to four-year colleges. Officials estimate that an additional 5%-10% of high school graduates (350-700 students per year) would attend if there were an accessible, affordable university available to them.

There is no question that increasing higher education access, particularly for lower-income families, would benefit not only the students but also the Ventura County economy and its communities. However, building a new public university is not the only way to accomplish this.

The Times article on Sept. 14 acknowledged that the county has two independent four-year institutions, Cal Lutheran University and Thomas Aquinas College (a third, Pepperdine, is just across the county line), but then dismissed them as being unaffordable for the average family. This perpetuates a seriously dated mythology.

Independent colleges are chartered by the state to provide higher education to the public. They accomplish this through private grants and voluntary gifts as opposed to state funding. Contrary to the myth, they enroll students as economically diverse as tax-subsidized colleges because they use their resources in a highly cost-effective way. They provide tuition assistance to students who have financial need rather than a taxpayer-supported subsidy to all students no matter how affluent the family.

In fact, the median family income of families enrolling students in the University of California system, the most heavily subsidized of California's higher education systems, is higher than that of families with students enrolled in the private sector.

Independent college students do qualify for Cal Grant funds, which are awarded to students on the basis of merit and financial need and can be used at the college of their choice.

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By adding millions of dollars of their own funds each year to the modest Cal Grant funds their students receive, independent colleges are able to provide assistance to the overwhelming majority of the 106,000 students attending them--more, by the way, than are enrolled in the UC system--and at a fraction of the public investment required to build and operate an additional state campus.

California's independent colleges certainly could not absorb all of "Tidal Wave II," or the 450,000 additional students expected to enter college by the year 2005. But they can be valuable partners with the public sector in offering those students an opportunity to earn a college degree. Collectively, they could accommodate an estimated 40,000 additional students if Cal Grants were funded at the maximum level stipulated in the state's education code.

Building a new CSU campus and increasing Cal Grant funds doesn't have to be an either-or choice. Building a new campus, however, seems to have more political appeal than, as John Slaughter, president of Occidental College, puts it, "funding students first."

While pursuing the admirable goal of acquiring a four-year university, county officials and residents should not overlook the jewels in their midst.

Private colleges serve an important public good, in a very effective way. They offer a less-expensive way to leverage public money, and they are willing partners in increasing access for California students. As we move toward becoming more of an information society and as the job market bifurcates into low-end service jobs and high-end "knowledge" jobs, all approaches to providing access to higher education should be pursued.

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