Influencers Opinion

Free tuition won’t make college more accessible. But improving the education experience could

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth. One influencer each week is also invited to write a column that takes a closer look at the issue.

Get weekly updates on the issues that matter to you: Sign up for the California Influencers newsletter here.

The promise of free college tuition has become a reliable applause line for politicians on the campaign trail. But there are better and more responsible ways to make college more accessible – and to make sure that the education the students receive is worthwhile.

Great universities have historically been the foundation of California’s success. They are the reason that California is the home to some of the world’s most innovative and successful companies. But a college education has become increasingly unaffordable for many of California’s smartest young people, and those who do find a way to pay for their education are less likely to receive the preparation they need to succeed in the professional world after graduation.

While inflation has increased 51 percent at public four-year schools over the last two decades, tuition costs have risen by more than 100 percent. With American students already holding $1.5 trillion in debt, we need to keep our universities affordable, so every graduate has a chance to succeed in the information economy of the future.


Here are three things we can do to improve quality education while keeping our universities affordable:

First, give teaching the same emphasis as research. Our state’s universities employ some of the most gifted and respected academic minds in the world. But professors also must navigate a perverse set of incentives that penalizes them for devoting time to undergraduate students in their schools and requires them to devote the vast majority of their time to research and publishing at the expense of classroom instruction.

DanSchnur Photo
Dan Schnur

Second, every sector of the economy is using new technology to lower costs and provide better outcomes. Our universities need to do the same. Obviously, every freshman taking a survey class does not require a Nobel Laureate as an instructor. But too many students sit in the back of enormous auditoriums listening to mediocre teachers.

Massive Online Open Courses can provide more access to the best professors at substantially lower costs. More importantly, artificial intelligence and machine learning can provide individualized guidance to identify areas where struggling students need extra help, as well as helping faster learners move quickly.

Adaptive courseware is especially helpful for low-income and other non-traditional students in gateway classes, and therefore can play a critical role in closing racial and income-based equity gaps. The result is better outcomes for the students while keeping the costs of a diploma from spiraling further out of reach.

Steve Westly.JPG
Steve Westly

Third, we must enable more students to graduate in four years. One of the greatest obstacles to affordability is the additional time that students must spend in school, piling up expenses and debt.

Forty percent of University of California students are unable to graduate in four years, usually because they can’t get the classes they need. Enabling students to graduate in four years rather than six reduces the cost of tuition and housing by a third. That’s a dramatic difference, especially for students who come from economically challenging circumstances.

Returning professors to the classroom and augmenting their talents by using machine learning can provide students with better access to classes and more tailored training – at much lower costs.

Our state is the envy of the world and our universities are the key to our success. We need to make them better, more accessible and slow the pace of tuition growth. A combination of traditional academic brilliance supported with the best in new technology can provide our young people with the higher educational tools they need to lead us to a better future.

Dan Schnur, the former chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, is director of McClatchy’s California Influencer series. Steve Westly is the former controller and chief fiscal officer of the state of California and founder to the Westly Group, a Silicon Valley venture firm that focuses on smart energy, mobility and buildings. He is also a Jobs and Economic Growth influencer for McClatchy’s California Influencer series.
Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune