The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Plans are worthless, but planning is essential. "...  ...Dwight David Eisenhower.

Commentary of the Day - January 19, 2010:  Higher Education in California - Time for a New Master Plan II?

In a recent op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times William Tierney, professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and Director of the USC Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, suggested that the current Master Plan for Public Higher Education in California is obsolete and needs to be replaced with a master plan that "better reflects the times."

The IP responded in his previous commentary (1-10-10) to one of Tierney's proposals.  Namely, that taxpayer funding for the University of California, California State University, and California Community College systems should be replaced by a system that would require students and parents to pay the "market cost" of a college education insofar as they could afford those costs, while those who could not afford to pay "market cost" would receive financial aid to help them obtain a college education.  Needless to say, the IP found Tierney's funding proposal deeply flawed.

In this commentary we examine some of the other comments that Tierney made about the Master Plan along with his suggestions for changes in areas besides funding.

To recap, Tierney argued in his op-ed piece that the current Master Plan, which was adopted in 1960 was based on four assumptions that reflected the conditions of that era; namely,

* High school education was separate from the higher education system, an end in itself.

* UC, Cal State and community colleges were largely funded by taxpayers.

* Accumulating credits and fulfilling credit requirements, regardless of their relevance, was equated with learning.

* Degree requirements and course content varied significantly across UC, Cal State and the community colleges.

He went on to argue that owing to the exigencies of the California budget crisis and the largely dysfunction status of state government, the current Master Plan should be replaced by one based on the following assumptions:

* High school and higher education must be linked to ensure that when students graduate from high school, they are prepared for college.

* Students, not institutions, are funded.

* Classes are offered in a variety of settings and times, and at the students' pace.

* Course content, and what students are expected to know to acquire a specific degree, is standardized or closely related across the system. Meeting those expectations, rather than acquiring credits, would be the key to getting a degree.

Tierney is technically correct when he states that high school education was and is separate from the higher education system (an end in itself).  But, it always has been the case that the public high schools in California provided courses of study that prepared students to go on to college.  Back in the day when the IP was a high school student here in California -- before the Master Plan was adopted -- it was true that college preparation was only a part of the high school curriculum.  In those days the majority of high school students did not go on to a four-year college; and, high schools offered a much richer array of vocational programs than are offered today.  In addition, admission requirements for both public and private colleges and universities were far from uniform in that era.  High school advisors had to work closely with college prep students to ensure that they took the high school courses that were required by the college or university that they were planning on attending.

One of the major benefits of the Master Plan for Higher Education in California was the development of consistent, but separate, admission standards for the campuses in the University of California system and those in the California State University system.  After the adoption of the Master Plan, all campuses in the University of California system adopted identical course requirements for freshman admission.  Likewise, all the campuses in the California State University system (then the California State College system) adopted a single pattern of course requirements for freshman admission to their system.  For many years the course patterns required for admission to the two systems were similar but not exactly identical.  However, in recent years those differences have largely disappeared.  Some differences in admission requirements between the two systems remain, but these are in the area of high school grades and test scores that are required for admission, not in the courses taken in the high school college prep programs.

Tierney argues that high school and higher education "must be linked to ensure that when students graduate from high school, they are prepared for college."  There are two points that need to be made here.  First, even though a college education is more important now than it was when the Master Plan was first adopted, there are many high school students who don't go on to a four-year college for a variety of reasons.  Some lack the intellectual capability to master college-level courses.  Others simply lack interest in further academic education, though they often plan on further vocational study at the community college level.  Nevertheless, high schools have to accommodate the interests of all their students, not just those who plan to go on to a four-year college degree program.  To restructure the high school curriculum so that it focuses solely on college preparation would do a disservice to many students.  In fact, the IP would argue that the pendulum has swung too far in that direction already.

Tierney's statement that at the time the Master Plan was adopted "accumulating credits and fulfilling credit requirements, regardless of their relevance, was equated with learning" is correct at least in the sense that it was assumed that if a student took and passed a course he or she must have learned something.  There was no assumption that the particular course or courses that a student took necessarily had to "be relevant" to one's chosen major, or to finding a job, or to some other predefined goal.  Of course, to graduate from college the student did have to meet the requirements for his or her major.  But in those days students often had room in their programs for electives.  And, some students chose to take courses not because they were particularly relevant to their majors or chosen careers, but simply because they found them interesting.  It appears that Tierney finds intellectual curiosity and learning for its own sake something to be discouraged.  How sad!

Tierney is correct in noting that before the adoption of the Master Plan "degree requirements and course content varied significantly across UC, Cal State and the community colleges."  To a large extent the degree of variation diminished following the adoption of the Master Plan.  Particularly at the freshman and sophomore level, course content has acquired a high degree of uniformity owing to the need for the community colleges to articulate their transfer offerings with the same courses offered by the UC and CSU campuses so that the community college courses would be accepted for transfer credit.  In the CSU system there also is a great deal of uniformity in the general education part of degree requirements across campuses, much more so than one finds between different private colleges or universities.  The greatest differences between campuses generally are in major requirements.  This is where the strengths, weaknesses, and interests of the faculty come into greatest play.  To some extent these differences are tempered for those majors where outside accreditation is important.  Engineering majors have more uniformity across the system than physics majors, because there is a strong outside accreditation system for engineering programs and none for physics programs.  But, one also could ask why should the public colleges and universities be required to have more uniformity in degree requirements than the private colleges and universities where there often are extreme differences in degree requirements for the same major.

In addition, the IP wonders where Tierney has been this past decade when he suggests that "classes [should be] offered in a variety of settings and times, and at the students' pace."  Is he not aware of the explosion of online courses and degree programs offered by both public and private colleges and universities in recent years?  At the IP's former home campus a large number of courses are offered online.  Some degree programs are offered entirely online, and other classes are offered early in the morning, late at night, or on weekends to meet student needs.  While not as prevalent, there even are some courses that are offered in a self-paced format.  Students these today already have many options when it comes to course delivery.

Even if it were a desirable goal - and arguments can be made that it's not, standardizing course content for degree programs is a bigger challenge.  For some programs such as nursing and engineering where accreditation groups have a strong influence on curriculum a certain amount of standardization has been achieved.  However, for many programs and majors faculty interests and strengths often shape many of the specialties and sub-specialties in a given major, and it becomes close to impossible to completely standardize major programs.  It is just these differences that make the various campuses in the UC and CSU systems unique.  And, even if it were somehow possible to dictate a standard curriculum for a given major and a standard content for each course in that curriculum, there remains the fact that there are no "standard" instructors to give these standardized courses.   After all we are talking about higher education, not widget factories, and the quality and wisdom of the instructor does count for something!  Nevertheless, the current Master Plan has created a fairly high level of commonality among given degree programs at the various campuses.  This is very true at the freshman and sophomore levels where majors have been tailored to make it easy for students to transfer in from community colleges.  Indeed students generally have little difficulty in transferring between campuses in any given major.  Most major courses taken at one campus are acceptable at another campus.  Generally, transferring students can meet degree requirements without excessive delays.

To paraphrase the great theoretical physicist, Lev Landau, much of what Tierney proposes is new and interesting.  Unfortunately, that which is new in Tierney's proposals is not interesting, and that which is interesting is not new!

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