Facing Reality: California Needs a Statewide Agenda to Improve Higher Education Outcomes

October 2004

California faces some major challenges in providing education beyond high school for its growing and diversifying population. The need for an educated populace and workforce is greater than ever before, yet California’s record on a number of key indicators of educational performance is poor. Of particular concern are low degree and certificate completion rates and large gaps across racial/ethnic groups in education levels. Californians are accustomed to celebrating their public colleges and universities but a close look at data shows that celebration is unwarranted. Concerted policy attention is needed to the design, operation, and financing of our public higher education institutions if the state is to attain the levels of education needed to sustain a strong society and economy.

We studied seven other states that share California’s high rates of growth and demographic change (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Washington) to see what California can learn about how best to improve access to and success in postsecondary education. We examined how well each of these states has defined what needs to be done, who needs to do it, and how it will be accomplished. We found that each of these states is making greater progress than California on diagnosing what its challenges are and developing a statewide agenda for addressing those challenges. We found less success among these states in mobilizing key stakeholders to implement the state agenda, due mostly to the absence of effective structures and policies to sustain a statewide focus. Nevertheless, most of the states have stronger leadership around a statewide policy agenda than we see in California. We found a mixed record regarding states’ progress on how to implement state agendas; we identified many interesting initiatives and activities aimed at increasing access, capacity, and success, but no examples of a comprehensive approach to financing state higher education in these states. Nevertheless, there are useful lessons for California in the activities underway in other states.

The good news is that California has much unused potential for pursuing a statewide agenda to improve its higher education performance, including many of the key elements of governance and policy capacity that other states lack. The challenge is for California’s policymakers and education officials to apply these sources of potential capacity toward meeting the state’s urgent educational needs.

We offer the following list of specific suggestions for what California’s leaders must do to provide for the education levels necessary for social and economic prosperity:

  1. Develop a statewide agenda and an accountability system;
  2. Improve leadership capacity for higher education;
  3. Develop a student tracking system and use it to learn what works;
  4. Track program completion in the community colleges;
  5. Fix community college transfer;
  6. Develop a real financing plan that projects the costs of meeting state goals and proposes how to pay; and
  7. Resist following other states down the road of privatizing higher education.
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