By Hans Johnson, Bren policy fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California
This commentary appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 24, 2012
More than ever before, California's high school students are qualifying for attendance at the state's public four-year universities. This surprising fact is contrary to conventional wisdom—but a wealth of statistics backs it up. For example, over the past 10 years, the share of high school students taking calculus, a college-level math course, has increased more than 50 percent. At the University of California, a record 16.5 percent of high school graduates met the minimum eligibility criteria and applied for admission, up from only 12.4 percent in 1994. And, once in a public university, students are more likely to succeed now than in the past: Completion rates have increased at both UC and the California State University system.
This news should be a welcome indication of the state's future prosperity. California's economy requires more college-educated workers than it is producing. The Boomer generation—a relatively well-educated one—is retiring, and groups with historically low rates of college graduation are entering the state's working-age population.
But here's the rub: Despite students' gains in college readiness and the state's need for more college graduates, enrollment rates in the state's public universities are declining. New research from the Public Policy Institute of California shows that over the past four years, enrollment rates of recent high school graduates to UC and CSU have fallen from 22 to 18 percent.
The decline in enrollment rates is especially severe in the nine-county Bay Area. It is no surprise that here, in the state's most educated region, high school graduates are more likely to meet the college preparatory requirements for admission to UC or CSU.
In 2010, almost half—47 percent—of Bay Area students had completed those requirements, compared with just over a third—35 percent—of graduates in the rest of the state. Yet college enrollment rates of recent Bay Area high school graduates to UC and CSU fell from 31 percent in 2007 to 26 percent in 2010.
Why the decline? The state's budget crisis has played a major role, as state support of higher education has dropped dramatically. Over the past 10 years, general-fund allocations for higher education fell by $1.6 billion dollars (inflation adjusted). These huge budget cuts have taken a toll.
In response, UC and CSU have sharply increased tuitions and established enrollment caps at major urban campuses, including UC Berkeley, UC Davis, San Francisco State, San Jose State, and Sacramento State. Tuitions at UC are now among the highest in the country for public research universities, and at both UC and CSU tuition increases have been about twice as great as in comparable public universities in other states. The enrollment caps mean that students are increasingly denied admission to their preferred campuses even though they meet systemwide eligibility standards.
What happens to these students? Some go to community college, but increased enrollment at community colleges accounts for at most a quarter of the decline. Moreover, community colleges have also undergone cutbacks that can make it difficult for students to get the classes they need.
Other students are going out of state - and in increasing numbers. Maybe these young people leave just to attend college, but problematically for the state's future, they may settle outside of California for good. Still others opt not to attend college at all after high school graduation.
What can be done about it? Steps could and should be taken to ensure that funds for higher education are spent as efficiently as possible. For example, funding the state's universities is currently based on enrollment. Funding them, at least in part, on graduation rates should lead to an increased emphasis on improving outcomes for students. Policies and practices that improve transfer rates and certificate or degree completion rates at the community colleges would be particularly cost-effective because this system serves a majority of the state's lower-division undergraduates.
But it is important to be realistic: These steps would not make up for the severe cuts to higher education budgets. California policymakers must set goals for our higher education system that are consistent with the demands of a 21st century economy, and then find ways to fund those goals.
The need to act is urgent. Projections suggest that the state needs to produce an additional 1 million baccalaureates beyond its current pace if California is to meet the economic demand for educated workers in 2025. And, of course, the future of California's young people is at stake. The average college graduate earns almost twice as much as the average high school graduate. During the economic downturn, college graduates have fared far better than less-educated workers.
No one doubts that difficult fiscal decisions lie ahead as policymakers wrangle over the state budget. But California—which built the most-admired public higher education system in the country—needs to hold fast to the goal of providing opportunities for qualified students to get a college education. The future of the state and its residents depends on it.