The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), which advises state lawmakers on budgetary matters, prides itself on taking an independent, nonpartisan and even nonpolitical approach to important policy issues.
That well-established tradition continues in a new LAO report on a pilot program that allows a few community college districts to offer four-year degrees in a few obscure subjects.
However, by divorcing itself from the program’s political aspects in this case, it’s also separating itself from reality.
The reality is that California’s economy needs more well-trained and well-educated workers, but obtaining a four-year college degree these days is difficult given the inability of the state’s public universities to handle the demand.
California may be an economic powerhouse with global impact, but it also has the nation’s highest poverty rate, as calculated by the Census Bureau using a method that takes into account the cost of living, with nearly a fifth of its residents poverty-stricken.
That’s especially true for low-income students from the state’s less-populated regions because they must also cope with high living costs as they are forced to leave home to attend college.
Community colleges, which offer close-to-home, low-cost educations, do provide lower-division courses, but students still must transfer to four-year universities to complete their degrees.
Other states, facing the same dilemma, have responded by broadly authorizing community colleges to offer baccalaureate programs, and California’s pilot program has been an effort to replicate that rational approach.
However, political reality has made that expansion difficult. The state university system guards its place in the academic pecking order jealously. As a result, the pilot program was very limited, allowing the community colleges to offer degrees just in a few relatively obscure subjects that the universities ignored.
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As leaders ramp up pressure on local colleges to meet an improvement plan’s ambitious goals, a sharp-elbow squabble has developed over the data used to chart progress, or lack thereof.
Ironically, the state universities’ resistance to what it regarded as competition for money and students mirrors the resistance that the University of California displayed when the state universities wanted to begin offering some doctorate programs.
The LAO report ignored these three-way turf struggles, which have bubbled up for decades, in its lukewarm report on the community college pilot program.
“We found little evidence that graduates from these pilot programs were better prepared to fill these positions compared to those with other bachelor’s degrees or that pilot program graduates were helping employers fill hard-to-staff positions,” the LAO stated. “The most common benefit of the pilot cited by students was the relatively low cost of attending the community college bachelor’s degree programs.”
Having four-year programs in the community colleges would be unnecessary, the report suggests, if the two- and four-year systems would simply cooperate more on developing targeted training programs and better aligning course offerings to make transfers from community colleges to four-year schools easier.
Well, that’s stating the obvious — but only if, as the LAO does, one ignores the fact that we don’t have a well-integrated system of public higher education in California, despite the existence of a so-called “master plan” for the last half-century that assumes we do.
Ballot measures sponsored by those on the political left, such as unions, receive titles and summaries that enhanced chances of passage, while initiatives from the political right, such as anti-tax groups, are cast in a negative light.
We have three separate, often competitive, systems and as long as we do, we should embrace allowing community colleges to offer as many baccalaureate programs as they are financially and institutionally capable of doing, giving students more options and the state more of the well-educated workers it needs.
California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said it well in a statement responding to the LAO report:
“These programs are serving many students who might not otherwise have a path to a bachelor’s degree. The programs are of high quality and lead to meaningful jobs for graduates.”
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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