Viewpoint

California’s higher education system is failing to keep up

May 13, 2014 

Soon, many of us will be attending high school graduations throughout the Central Coast, and soon after, those high school graduates will be off to college. Unfortunately, many of those who start college will leave college without a degree. And this doesn’t only hurt these students’ lifetime earning wages; it casts a rain cloud on California’s economic future.

Our state’s economy is changing, and California’s higher education system has failed to keep up with these changes. By 2025, approximately 40 percent of the jobs in this state will require a bachelor’s degree or higher. However, the percentage of college graduates has continued to remain stagnant and, if current trends continue, only about 35 percent of people over the age of 25 will have a bachelor’s degree by 2025. If California does not make a commitment to invest in higher education now, we are not only failing these students, we are failing ourselves.

The majority of California high school graduates (about 60 percent) enroll in a California public institution (community college, CSU or UC). For a variety of reasons, more than half of these students enroll in their local community college.

Across the state, only about 40 percent of first-time freshmen at California community colleges whose goal is to transfer to a fouryear university do so within six years. That’s not good. Less than half of first-time freshmen who began their education at a CSU graduate within six years. The percentage of first-time freshmen who graduate within six years at the University of California is dramatically higher (about 80 percent). However, California’s top high school graduates who are competing for spots are now competing for spots at these universities with out-of-state students.

The cost of attending a CSU or UC has significantly increased in recent years, along with the percentage of students who are taking student loans. Between 2005 and 2010, the average loan amount among California college freshmen grew by 36 percent (roughly $8,000). Time is not on their side; in fact, time is their enemy. The more time students spend in college, the chance of them earning a degree decreases exponentially.

So while our children can look us straight in the eye and say, “It’s harder to get a college degree now than when you got your degree,” we can look at them right back and say, “You bet it is, and it is worth it.”

Despite the increase in cost, the rising debt and the unstable labor market over the past several years, a college degree remains a good investment. The unemployment rates are significantly lower for California residents who have earned a bachelor’s degree than for those who have only earned a high school diploma or even an associate’s degree. Furthermore, the lifetime earning power of college graduates far exceeds their counterparts.

California cannot wait to address this grave problem. The benefits individuals will reap over their lifetimes by earning a bachelor’s degree are far greater than individuals with lower educational levels. But in this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. California’s economic future is looking bleak unless our public universities can produce more students with bachelor’s degrees. We should make the investment now and shift funds into higher education, or we will be paying the price later; it’s as simple as that.

The 1960 Master Plan of High Education promised all California high school graduates a college education and, without that promise, many of us would not have a bachelor’s degree (or a home, a retirement plan or many other things we take for granted). Let’s not give up on that promise and continue to make higher education a priority not only for the class of 2014 and beyond but for the future of California.

Andrea Devitt is an academic counselor at Cuesta College. She has a master’s degree in education with an emphasis in curriculum and a master’s degree in public policy.

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