The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"The sad truth is that excellence makes people nervous."....  ....Shana Alexander.

Commentary of the Day - November 16, 2007: Access To Excellence Mediocrity.

Periodically the paper pushers at the California State University Chancellor's Office produce a position paper intended to convince members of the public that the largest system of public higher education in the country is on the right track, and that their children will actually have access to an affordable college education of reasonable quality if they make it through high school with halfway decent grades.  The latest such effort has been dubbed "Access to Excellence."  This document, when finally adopted will replace the previous such effort called "Cornerstones" (often referred to by wags on the 23 system campuses as "Gravestones").

Cornerstones was adopted on January 28, 1998, and an implementation plan was approved on March 17, 1999.  As noted on the CSU website...

The purpose (of Cornerstones) was to generate steps to meet the challenges of the next decade.  The organizing principle was the CSU's four fundamental commitments -- these are the university's four "cornerstones":
  • First, we have promised the highest standards of undergraduate education.  We must define what the public can expect from a CSU education: what we expect our graduates to have learned and how we will assess that learning.
  • Second, we have promised to meet the demand for higher education in California with the available resources.
  • Third, we are answerable to the people of California, and accountable for our performance.
  • Fourth, we have a non-negotiable commitment to serve the changing educational needs of the state and its people.

On the surface these appeared to be worthy goals, but underlying them was a not so subtle attempt by management to change the way the California State University System educated it students.  The second cornerstone, in reality, became the driving force for how the system would operate in the first decade of the 21st century.  At the same time the first and third cornerstones became the hammer that system management would use to ensure the conformity of faculty and staff.

Throughout the decade of the 90s the California State University System was involved in a resource squeeze.  On one hand the K-12 system, through a deft manipulation of California's all too liberal ballot proposition system, managed to corner a fairly large share of state budget resources.  And, at the same time, a "three-strikes" law that sent thousands of non-violent offenders to prison for life made corrections a growth industry in the state, capturing an ever increasing share of the state budget.  The state university system, which was one the few remaining "discretionary" items in the California state budget became a target for politicians struggling to close a series of budget gaps.

The CSU system took a number of steps to cope with the budget squeeze at the same time that enrollment pressure continued to grow.  Among them was an accelerating shift from tenured, full-time faculty members to untenured, part-time instructors who could be paid much less and offered fewer benefits; ever more onerous increases in student fees; and attempts to reduce the number of units required for graduation.  An increased emphasis on "assessment" became a fig-leaf that was used to assure the public that "quality" was being maintained even as more and more students were crowded into larger and larger classes taught by more and more part-time instructors.

A number of problems surfaced on the assessment front.  Not the least of which was the difficult task of determining exactly what a CSU graduate should have learned during his or her time in the system.  Should assessment be concerned only with what the student has gained from the general education courses required of all students?  Or, should assessment concentrate on how much the student has gained from his or her major?  Or, should it be limited to certain basic skills that we might expect from a college graduate?  Since many CSU graduates have transferred from community colleges, how should that be taken into account?  In addition, if a student does poorly on an assessment instrument does that reflect on the quality of instruction, or perhaps on the level of motivation possessed by the student?

The new millennium brought little improvement in California's budget situation; and, though a new "compact" was agreed to between the CSU and the governor that provided some promise of stable funding the reality is that the system finds itself in the same precarious budget squeeze that characterized the previous decade.  As a result, student fees have soared (up more than 90% in the past five years), and faculty salaries continue to lag in spite of a new union contract.  So, as enrollments continue to grow, only modest improvement in the ratio of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty to part-time faculty and untenured lecturers even though it has been widely recognized that the system has too few tenured and tenure-track faculty members.

"Access To Excellence" is yet another attempt at system-wide planning, still in the development stage, intended to address both the continuing and new challenges facing the California State University System.  A2E as it is often called, so far has three key goals:

The first set of goals cluster around student access and success.... They address four dimensions of access and success: ... the proportion of the population completing college degrees ... degree productivity ... affordability ... and quality of educational results ....

The second set of goals centers around the CSU's performance in meeting state needs for improving the quality of civic and democratic life, and in contributing to economic development -- through workforce preparation, meeting employer needs in critical areas, environmental sustainability, research and development, and expanding international programs.

The final set of goals speaks to institutional management, and to the leadership needed to sustain capacity for excellence by investing in success and quality.  These goals address needs for enrollment growth, for quality in faculty and staff, for better use of data-based experimentation to improve performance, and for continued use of evidence-based advocacy to advance the university's state and national reputation.

This is a lot of pretty dense "eduspeak", but to put it in plain English the first goal aims at increasing the percentage of the student population that is awarded a college degree.  According to the planners, we are in an age where a college degree is a requirement for anyone who wants to live above the poverty level.  Thus, regardless of preparation or talent, a greater percentage of the student population must be awarded degrees.  The planners also are aware that present levels of state funding for the system are a major impediment to this goal.  Thus, there is an emphasis on improving "degree productivity" (often called "doing more with less"), and at keeping access to the system somehow "affordable."  Although that affordability is now to be achieved through financial aid, largely in the form of loans that leave many of our graduates saddled with a lifetime of debt, rather than through the low fees that once made the CSU the "people's university".

The second goal reflects the tension between those who view a college education both as an end in itself and good preparation to meet life's challenges over the long haul, and those who view college primarily a glorified trade school that provides employers with skilled workers to meet their immediate needs.  Clearly we expect those who graduate from our CSU campuses to have acquired a broad range of skills as well as having achieved some intellectual growth.  But it seems short-sighted to be placing too much emphasis on the immediate needs of employers, because we know that these days most of our graduates will move from one employer to another several times in the course of their working years.  After a few years many if not most of them will be in jobs that didn't exist when they graduated.  Perhaps it would be better to insist that CSU students develop those general skills that would help them adapt to changing employment opportunities, but that would mean educating them rather than training them.

The third goal is a lot like motherhood and apple pie.  Everyone in higher education is in favor of excellence, success, and quality.  In reality, while many colleges and universities achieve success, few achieve true excellence.  One cannot invest in excellence and success directly.  But, it is possible to build high quality programs through investments in faculty, facilities, and programs that will foster excellence and success.  Many individual programs on CSU campuses have achieved a measure of success, and a few approach genuine excellence.  However, the daunting budgetary problems facing the system make the odds quite long of this becoming the norm anytime soon.  In fact, our current attempts to meet increased enrollment pressures and to achieve higher graduation rates while working within the constraints of a poorly funded system on average have lowered quality.

The CSU should not try to fool the public into believing that it can produce significantly more well-educated graduates so long as it remains an underfunded step-child in the state budget.  But, even if adequate resources were present, there are limits to what the system can achieve.  At present, the California State University campuses admit students whose high school grades are in the top third of their graduating classes.  Yet, persistently nearly half of entering freshmen need remediation in basic mathematics and basic English.  And, while the system enrolls many students who would be competitive at any major college or university in the land, it also is the case that perhaps as many as 25% of those who we currently enroll probably would be better served in community college vocational programs.  It is true that our graduation rates could be better.  We don't come close to a 75% graduation rate.  Too many of our students drop out even though they have the ability to earn a degree.  Some drop out because of the growing financial burden of rapidly increasing fees.  Others who are capable but marginally prepared for college drop out because they do not receive the individual attention that they need from the overburdened faculty and staff.  The reduction in the percentage of full-time tenured and tenure track faculty has exacerbated that situation.  Correcting these problems will take much more than another planning initiative from an out-of-touch central administration.

But meanwhile CSU management should be warning Californians that the promise of a meaningful state university degree for their sons and daughters is very much in jeopardy.

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© 2007 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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