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Lawmakers told California is lagging in higher education


VENTURA COUNTY STAR.  FEBRUARY 19, 2013.  As policymakers at statehouses nationwide are shining a spotlight on higher education this year, California lawmakers Tuesday were told they face steep challenges if they hope to meet a projected need for 3.5 million more college-educated workers by 2025.

Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, testified that California lags many other countries and states in developing an educated workforce and is losing ground.

Testifying before a hearing of the Assembly Committee on Higher Education, Jones said California has historically relied on migration from other states and nations for its college-educated workers.

“Slightly more than one-third of the people in California with bachelor’s degrees come from California,” he said. “Two-thirds come from other places.”

To meet the growing need, California will have to start producing more of its own college graduates, he said, and produce them from a generation of young people who come from racial and ethnic backgrounds that now have low rates of attending or completing college.

He said that between 2005 and 2025, California is expected to add 2.7 million residents in the 25-44 age group, more than 80 percent of whom will be Latinos and blacks. Among those groups in that age range now, less than 10 percent have bachelor’s degrees and more than 60 percent have a high school diploma or less.

“That’s the population you have to work with,” Jones said.

The hearing came as much attention is being focused on higher education in state capitals across the country. Julie Bell, director of education programs for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said surveys by her organization show higher education is among the top three priorities of state legislators nationwide.

She said the heightened attention comes after years of state budget cuts and associated tuition increases implemented by colleges to make up for their losses in state support.

In Sacramento, Gov. Jerry Brown has called on colleges to use online learning more, limit the number of courses students can take without graduating and take other steps to improve efficiency and change a higher education cost structure that he says “continually increases without necessarily adding productivity or value.”

In addition, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office has suggested lawmakers adopt a new funding model based not on enrollment but on colleges’ ability to meet “clear expectations in areas such as program completions, degrees earned, research activity and cost reductions.”

Much of the discussion at Tuesday’s hearing focused on community colleges — institutions Jones said will have to improve their percentages of students who complete certification programs or transfer to four-year universities.

“You’re going to have to rely much more on the success of community colleges,” he said.

Committee Chairman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, said the hearing was intended to lay the groundwork for policy discussions in the coming months on issues relating to college access, cost containment and steps to improve student success.

“I think the challenges are possible to overcome,” he said in an interview after the hearing. “The question remains whether we have the political will to do things differently. If we try to protect the system as it is, we are protecting a system that is failing too many and shutting out too many. The status quo is morally unacceptable.”

Williams said changes will be considered in all higher education segments but that community colleges need special attention.

“Our whole system breaks down if we don’t make community colleges work,” he said.