California’s Higher Education Systems Wage War on Students

by Reihan Salam

Ry Rivard reports on the backlash against Darrell Steinberg’s innovative higher education reform proposal:

Steinberg’s goal is to guarantee students access to much-needed courses, particularly lower division general education courses that tend to fill quickly. Community college students, in particular, have suffered from this problem, which is tied to the state’s budget woes. About 500,000 community college students have been turned away during the state’s prolonged budget crisis.

Naturally, academic senate leaders from California’s three higher education systems are opposed to this reform, and they claim to be acting on behalf of their students:

[Michelle] Pilati [president of the statewide Academic Senate for California Community Colleges] said these students do need greater access, but the state should invest in the public college system, not shoo students away into third-party offerings. “Students are not looking for a pathway to unit accumulation; they want to register for courses,” she said. “We’re more than capable of serving our students.”

Pilati’s claim is curious. She claims that “students are not looking for a pathway to unit accumulation,” i.e., that they are not interested in completing the requirements for a degree, but rather than they want to register for site-specific community college courses as such. I’m not entirely sure that is true. And of course students wouldn’t be required to register for third-party alternatives. Under Steinberg’s plan, they are given the option to do so if the course they need to take is oversubscribed. And so students with no interest in finding “a pathway to unit accumulation” are made no worse off.

What Pilati fails to address is whether the public college system is capable of serving students at a price students and taxpayers are willing or able to pay, and whether there are lower-cost alternatives that can achieve the objective of preparing students for upper-level coursework or the labor market. As Medicaid and other expenditures have increased, tuition subsidies have been squeezed as the cost of higher education has increased, and students have been bearing the burden. Steinberg’s measure is designed to contain the cost of higher education to shield students from cost increases. It is certainly possible that California community colleges offer a much higher quality product than the third-party alternatives that would have to be approved by California’s Open Educational Resources Council under the plan — and that is why we ought to compare students side-by-side, factoring cost-effectiveness into the equation. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.