The Editor's Desk

California failing when it comes to college education

I always get a bit cranky when people start talking about the good old days. For the most part, those days were never as good as we remember.

Don't tell me it was better when we were facing Fresno's 100-degree summers without air conditioning in our cars and our homes. Times may have been simpler, but I'm not ready to trade in my modern conveniences.

But the exception to my good-old-days rule is the cost of a college education. Those days were better because California's leaders understood the critical need of turning out thousands of graduates who would get good jobs, pay taxes and contribute to the fabric of the Golden State.

It was an investment in a better California.

I paid about $150 a year to attend Fresno State in the early 1970s. Books were another $60 to $80. I could pay my way by working part-time and still have plenty of time to go to school. A student today pays about $3,000 a year in fees and several hundred dollars for books. Many have to take a semester off to earn enough money for the next semester. Others take on debt unimaginable by their grandparents.

I grew up at a very fortunate time. The state substantially subsidized my college education, and the education of thousands of other Californians. But the state's leaders today don't put the same value on a college-educated work force that their predecessors did a generation ago.

Investments pay back in long run

No wonder the Golden State, once the nation's trendsetter, is now beset with more problems than it can handle. We don't invest in our children, although we act like we're giving them the keys to the kingdom. We don't invest in our freeways, although we pat ourselves on the back when we borrow to fill a few potholes.

Name the problem in California, and we're losing ground, even while the politicians trumpet great progress. They can't see beyond their term-limited noses.

The California Postsecondary Education Commission has been studying the state's fee policy at public campuses. Commissioners have found that college education is becoming less affordable, forcing students and their families to take on huge debt. Parents with children in college or about to enter college could have told them that without a study.

Thirty years ago, 17% of California's general fund went to higher education, according to CPEC. That commitment slipped to 11% last year. The students and their families have been making up the difference in higher fees.

Middle-income families have been hit the hardest because they often are not eligible for financial aid to help offset the fee increases. The CPEC report, released last spring, calls this the "middle-income squeeze."

"In many respects, the state is at a crossroads," said CPEC Executive Director Murray J. Haberman in a statement accompanying the report. "Because of California's reduction in support for public higher education in the past 30 years, the answer to maintaining quality in tight budget years has been to rely on the resources of students and their families. Unfortunately, we have reached the point where expected student and family contributions far exceed cash on hand."

CPEC has made several recommendations, including freezing fees for a time, increasing financial aid and better educating students and their parents on the aid options available.

There's another factor at work that complicates the funding picture at one level of higher education.

Make student success a priority

A report issued Thursday on community colleges shows that only about 25% of students who enter a community college seeking a degree, certificate or transferring to a four-year school are successful. The reason is that community colleges get money to get students enrolled, but not to see that they are successful.

It's as if the community colleges are not for students, but for the faculty and administrators. They can keep their staffs as long as they get students enrolled, but there is no incentive to get them through the system.

This is the way that education works at all levels in California. The system has been turned on its head so that students aren't the center of the process. They are there to give administrators, teachers and professors something to do instead of the administrators, teachers and professors being there to see that the students succeed.

In this new system, results don't seem to be important. California is paying for that in fewer high school and college graduates. That means social problems will be getting bigger pieces of tax dollars.

It's time to return to the good old days of education. That means the state fully funding all levels of education and having policies that encourage students to be successful.

California can be golden again. But not if we keep trying to do it on the cheap.

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