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California’s higher education leaders see an opportunity in crisis


Photo courtesy of Dinuba Unified School District

Pennants, flags and posters promote colleges in Dinuba Unified in the San Joaquin Valley, even at the elementary schools.

Colleges, students and faculty members may be unsure of what lies ahead as they brace for another mostly virtual academic term amid a pandemic, but the crisis could force California’s higher education systems to improve.

The state’s colleges and universities could use the current crisis to build better partnerships across the University of California, California State University, California Community Colleges and private institutions to increase access and improve graduation rates. That was the message from Lande Ajose, a senior policy advisor for higher education to Gov. Gavin Newsom, and ECMC Foundation President Peter Taylor during a webinar Wednesday hosted by California Competes, a nonprofit focused on improving graduation outcomes. The organization released a new data dashboard that found uneven educational opportunities across the state. For example, Bay Area residents are most likely to have a bachelor’s degree, at 52%, compared to 17% of residents in the San Joaquin Valley.

“In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s hard to imagine what could exist on the other side of it,” said Ajose. “But at some point, whether it is 12 months or 36 months from now, we are going to recover from the twin crises of the pandemic and economic recession … We need a unified, cohesive and coherent vision of what higher education should be and look like.”

Ajose said the pandemic is teaching Californians that basic needs for students don’t just include food and housing, but access to broadband internet and digital devices.

“What’s become clear is that if you are a student in California and would like to go to school this fall and don’t have digital access, then you do not have access to education,” she said.

Newsom’s administration, along with California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, has been working with internet service providers to continue offering low-cost plans to families that don’t lead to significant price increases, Ajose said.

They’re also focused on getting more tablets and computers into students’ hands and making people aware of the importance of broadband access.

“Many families don’t understand the need for broadband access,” Ajose said. “We’ll work with partners to push out the message that for telehealth, job searches, working from home, there are lots of reasons now where computer access and broad access is a basic need.”

The urgent need to prepare for postsecondary digital instruction was underscored by a Public Policy Institute of California brief issued Tuesday, which indicates that four out of five of California’s colleges and universities will open this fall operating primarily online or with a hybrid approach. That includes most of the state’s private colleges. Only a few are planning on mostly in-person instruction. That contrasts with what is happening nationally. At least for now, about half of the nation’s colleges are saying they will offer in-person instruction.

Besides improving access to technology and the internet, Ajose and Taylor, who serves as a CSU trustee, said forming a state higher education coordinating entity of college leaders would improve transfers and unify each college system in the state around shared goals of improving graduation rates and getting graduates into well-paying jobs.

“The governor’s office and the legislature control funding,” said Taylor who heads a foundation focused on improving postsecondary education outcomes. If all the college and university systems are in agreement on the goals, then they should be able to get together and pursue the funding under a joint strategy, he said.

Last year, Newsom launched the Council for Post-Secondary Education, an advisory board of education, business and labor leaders to discuss college access, success and financial issues. But the council doesn’t have the power or resources of a statewide coordinating agency.

Ajose said creating that entity is still a priority for Newsom, but this year’s focus has been on building a statewide longitudinal data system to track students through high school, college and into the workplace.  California is one of a few states that doesn’t have this type of system.

With more adult students turning to online education to add skills to help them get jobs despite the recession and the coronavirus, Ajose and Taylor said building quality online education should be a priority.

“We need to do a better job focusing on the 27-year-old single parent, who is a part-time worker with childcare challenges,” Taylor said. “Our system isn’t quite as adept at helping that student as we are the 18-year-old coming straight out of high school and going to college full-time.”

One solution would be creating a better framework for awarding “prior-learning credit,” which would, for example, acknowledge the experience of someone who spent 10 years working on computers in the military, but then enrolls in a college Information Technology program to earn their degree, he said.

“Given the economic dislocation we’re experiencing, we probably have many more people with experience interested in pursuing higher education than six months ago,” Ajose said. “It’s incredibly timely to think about credit for prior learning.”

Louis Freedberg contributed to this report. 

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