By Nathalie Pierrepont
California’s public universities are still operating on a tight budget, though passage of Proposition 30 has eased some of the pain — with a quarter-cent sales tax and higher income taxes on those with incomes above $250,000 expected to yield some $6 billion a year for education.
State budget cuts to the University of California system, California State University system and California Community Colleges accelerated in recent years, pushing California’s public education budget to 47th in the country, according to the annual “Quality Counts” report from Education Week.
There have been fee and tuition spikes, faculty layoffs, overcrowded classrooms and reduced student programs, services and curriculum. Faced with this financial reality and a growing population, administrators and academics are thinking creatively about how to maintain the quality of the state’s public higher education system with less money.
“Dollars cut over the last few years are not going to come back, so we’re going to have to be innovative to meet students’ needs,” said Leroy Morishita, president of California State University, East Bay. “There’s no easy answer.”
Employment prospects have been grim for college graduates in recent years, “so maybe students are believing they’re better off” delaying graduation, said Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a public policy advocacy organization.
“The longer a student stays (in the public education system), the more it drives up the cost of tuition,” he said. “There should be a clear path to a degree or a certificate and students should be accountable for achieving it because it’s still a subsidized system.”
Students can take remedial courses online rather than use the classroom to “relearn things they were supposed to have learned in high school,” Wunderman said.
Once engaged in the classroom experience, students should receive support from academic advisers and career counselors. Improving their focus and direction will help them select their majors early, work through credits efficiently and “have somewhere to go with their education,” he said. Also UCs, Cal States and community colleges should be better integrated to support credit transfers.
Morishita of Cal State East Bay is taking a cue from Governor Jerry Brown in creating operational efficiencies that may drive down tuition costs.
The governor granted the California State University system $10 million in January in part to increase online course offerings. Morishita said it sounds promising for increasing access to learning.
“Online teaching is not a panacea for all problems, but we’re looking for multiple methods of learning,” he said.
Morishita said faculty at California State, East Bay are prepared to use technology to enhance instruction.
“Students today have grown up in a very different world in terms of access to technology and multiple methods of learning,” he said.
Mix online with campus classes
John Douglass, senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley, said that a strictly online education — such as UC Online Education initiative — is not the answer for the traditional-age student cohort.
“Mixed environment courses are probably the most efficient way to provide and enhance learning,” Douglass said.
Online courses — whether taken entirely at home or in addition to time in the classroom — have not yet proved to offer significant cost savings.