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Timothy P. White: California has two droughts

Fresno State graduate Ludie Olenchalk, center, takes a group selfie photo with Kreman School of Education and Human Development classmates before entering the Save Mart Center for the university’s 104th commencement May 16, 2015. A recent study says that CSU schools must graduate 2 million students between now and 2030 to meet California’s economic demands.
Fresno State graduate Ludie Olenchalk, center, takes a group selfie photo with Kreman School of Education and Human Development classmates before entering the Save Mart Center for the university’s 104th commencement May 16, 2015. A recent study says that CSU schools must graduate 2 million students between now and 2030 to meet California’s economic demands. THE FRESNO BEE

We face two droughts: one of water and one of bachelor’s-educated citizenry.

A case can be made that the San Joaquin Valley – where I earned my bachelor’s degree – is at the center of both.

Anyone who has driven up Interstate 5 or Highway 99 from Southern California to Kettleman City learns to appreciate the vastness of California.

And today, those who drive I-5 and 99 are reminded of another fact about California: We are in a devastating drought. A million acres of productive land across the state have been fallowed. Shades of green have given way to shades of brown. And once-verdant fields are now simply dirt.

Sitting among one of these fields is a farm trailer. The banner on the trailer reads: “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”

There is a simple and undeniable logic to this. Yet, the indictment is also clear. The water drought is a human-made disaster. We failed to make critical investments in infrastructure and continued to expand our residential, commercial and agricultural demands to the limits of existing water resources, bringing us to the edge of disaster.

So, we failed to see the inevitable coming and did too little to soften the blow. Now we are left with draconian steps to correct our mistakes as attested to by those fields of cracked mud and billions in proposed water projects, with lost crops and lost jobs – jobs that support the families of the San Joaquin Valley.

What if water is not our only public policy blind spot? Could we act today to end another devastating drought before it takes its toll?

I’m speaking of the shortfall of bachelor’s degrees projected by the Public Policy Institute of California among other think tanks. The experts at the Public Policy Institute of California say that if California continues on the current glide path, we will be short 1.1 million earned bachelor’s degrees by 2030.

That is our next drought. A drought of talented citizens who are armed with the applied knowledge and analytical soft skills that sustain economic growth.

Addressing the bachelor’s degree drought is not impossible. Here is how we do it:

First, the state of California needs to ensure that students who start in preschool or kindergarten have a continuous pipeline to a bachelor’s degree. Today, we have a pipeline that is wide at the beginning and gets increasingly narrow as students approach the university. The system of funding we use is best described as dysfunctional. Dollars are guaranteed for K-14, but bachelor’s degrees are earned at a university. The state’s two public university systems must compete with every other priority program for discretionary dollars in the state’s general fund. The result is systems of mismatched sizes with more demand for university seats than supply, and students get stuck and forgotten.

Second, the California State University, University of California, community colleges and K-12 schools must work together to seal the leaks in the educational pipeline. There is a certain symmetry in this for the CSU, as the majority of the state’s teachers are educated on our campuses. It is therefore equally our responsibility, alongside school and college partners, to make sure that the teachers who earn their credentials are ready to meet the needs of today’s students in today’s classrooms.

Third, the CSU needs to be better at clearing obstructions in that last mile of piping. The CSU is in the midst of Graduation Initiative 2025, which aims to empower additional students to earn their degrees – among nearly a million total graduates over the next 10 years. Perhaps the most important element of the Graduation Initiative is the commitment to narrow achievement gaps for students from underserved and economically disadvantaged communities. California cannot succeed as a state if we fail to educate communities of color in the San Joaquin Valley.

The goals of the Graduation Initiative are already a tremendous lift, demanding the very best of CSU faculty, staff and our students.

Yet, where the CSU goal has nearly a million students on pace to earn a bachelor’s in 10 years, the PPIC report would require 2 million CSU students to complete their bachelor’s in 15 years.

Avoiding the bachelor’s degree drought in 2030 is difficult, but if we summon the will it becomes inevitable.

The only way you get to the goal of 2 million CSU bachelor’s degrees earned by 2030, while continuing to be a quality university, is to realize the three legs of the stool: a strong commitment to stable and strong funding from the state, a strong partnership across the educational continuum on college preparation and readiness, and a strong push from the CSU to ensure that every student has the tools needed to succeed.

That is how you solve a drought – a massive commitment from everyone involved to work together – but the first step is acknowledging that the drought exists.

Timothy P. White is chancellor of the California State University system. He is a first-generation college student and has attended all the branches of California’s public higher education system. He began his college career at Diablo Valley Community College in Pleasant Hill, then earned his bachelor’s degree from Fresno State and his master’s degree from CSU Hayward. He has a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley.

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