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A lesson in real life at California's public universities

April 23, 2013|By Karin Klein
  • Students outside UC Berkeley's library
Students outside UC Berkeley's library (Los Angeles Times )

I wonder how much time Gov. Jerry Brown spends on California’s public university campuses, chatting up students and professors and getting grounded in some reality, before he comes out with his get-tough policies on how they should be run. Sometimes it seems like it must be very little time indeed, if any at all.

His latest idea is that state funding of Cal State and the University of California should be tied to how many students they graduate within four years.

That makes sense in theory. It’s not great for students to hang around forever. It raises the chances that they’ll drop out without taking a degree, and if they’ve already gained all the credits they need to graduate, they’re taking up taxpayer-subsidized slots that other students need.

Back when a Cal State or UC education was practically cost-free, hanging on to college was just something a lot of young people did rather than face the work world. That’s changed; at more than $25,000 a year for room, board, tuition and books, students aren’t doing a lot of hanging around just for fun. They’re trying to get into overfilled classes or they’re in particularly demanding majors—or double majors, or a major plus a minor—with rigorous requirements that might mean taking fewer courses per semester, or just having to take more courses, period. They might be taking on the challenge of an honors thesis, a yearlong course that often involves heavy reading, research and writing, but is particularly good preparation for graduate school. Students who have transferred from another college often need a few extra courses to catch up to the new school’s requirements.

The state shouldn’t be doing anything to discourage California college and university students from excelling. It would be easy for the schools to graduate students in four years: Reduce graduation requirements. Don’t let students double-major or take a minor. If they major in a tough subject, tightly limit any courses outside the major so they don’t get a rounded education. Get rid of breadth requirements. All of these would be really bad ideas. But schools are going to do what they need to in order to get more funding.

It would make more sense, once students have finished off all their required credits, to charge them full freight and then some for staying on. Certainly, the universities should be giving the stink eye to students who stay longer than five years; they should be required to pick up the credits they need fast and then get out.

It's similar to other notions Brown has had about the state's public colleges; That funding be tied to how many students take a degree (again, easy: just lower requirements to the point of meaninglessness and the state can graduate as many students as it wants) and make professors do less research and writing and give them a heavier teaching load (possibly appropriate in some cases, but the universities' reputations will quickly diminish if they slow the flow of cutting-edge research and original thought, and many top-name professors will just leave). Turning the state's widely admired system of higher education into just another diploma machine would be a terrible mistake with far-reaching consequences.

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