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CALIFORNIA'S COLLEGE EXPERIENCE

June 11, 2005

With its mediocre funding for public schools -- and less-thanmediocre results -- California isn't known as an educational juggernaut in the K-to-12 years. That changes when it comes to college. No other state has anything quite like the prestigious University of California system, historically buttressed by the California State University system and community colleges.

We say "historically" because with funding shortages in all three systems, California's beloved master plan for higher education is in danger of toppling. It's at least being dragged down in increments from the equalizing "higher education for all" ideal of visionary former UC Chancellor Clark Kerr.

Adding to the pressure, a college-age "echo boom" (fed by the children of the baby boomers) is swelling. The state has to find ways to invest in college and university spaces for all who will need them, if only to provide enough college-educated workers to meet the economy's needs, as a recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California shows. It notes that the state has to be more than generous. It has to be smart. Unbridled expansion to accommodate this wave of students would mean that once they graduate there will be excess capacity, a waste. One way to gain space without new bricks and mortar is by discouraging perpetual students.

Only 40% of University of California freshmen graduate within four years. They don't take much longer than that -- a semester or two -- but each semester for each student means another $5,000 or so funded by taxpayers, and another slot that a deserving transfer student cannot occupy. If the university could magically make everyone finish within four years, the state would save tens of millions of dollars a year. About 10% of Cal State students take longer than six years to graduate. Because many CSU students are part-timers who also have to support themselves and families, the extra time is understandable -- but still, some have taken 30% more credits than they need, and are still hanging around.

The University of Virginia simply forces students to finish by the summer after their senior year. If they're not done, they have to take their remaining classes elsewhere. It works, but seems too harsh for California, especially when you consider that 45% of Cal State students already don't ever finish their college education.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made a good start in asking the universities to institute a steep increase in fees once students have enough credits to graduate, plus a 10% leeway factor. It should be more than steep -- it should cover the real cost of providing those classes so there's funding for new students to enter. That's fair to everyone.

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