Education as Ecosystems | Confessions of a Community College Dean

Yesterday’s post on the California State University Academic Senate resolution calling for an unlimited, unilateral and incomprehensible veto over community college undergraduate programs generated some provocative feedback. It seemed only fair to respond.

Several readers have referred me to the California Master Plan for Higher Education. As far as I know, in the 1960s the state appointed a group led by Clark Kerr (of “Multiversity” fame) to come up with a plan for the state’s colleges and universities. The plan envisaged a three-pronged system: The University of California – Berkeley, UCLA, etc. – would be elite research institutions to which students would be relatively subordinate. (One reader described them as “fodder for graduate assistants to practice teaching,” which isn’t exactly ripped from the viewbook.) Cal State campuses would focus on the bachelor’s and some locally relevant master’s programs. The community colleges would be primarily career-oriented.

If one assumes that the master plan is still fully effective, one could read the CSU Senate as if it were ordering the adult education centers to stay on track.

A more critical reader connected dots as follows:

“So… four-year-olds shouldn’t have a say in four-year degrees offered by ‘two-year-olds’, but two-year-olds should be able to request that four-year-olds accept all transfer credits? hmm I think your only consistent line is “what’s good for biennial institutions”.

No, but I can see where he got that from. I had assumed, but not specified, that public higher education systems should function as systems. This was at the heart of my contention that public institutions should not be forced to compete with each other. They serve the same audience. That should be the guiding principle, regardless of whether it is a question of a system chancellor or the “coordinated autonomy” favored in my state. When systems work as systems, students benefit.

READ :  OSU introduces a new VR media literacy course for the Esports Certificate Program | Local News

In other words, I never suggested that two-year colleges should be able to force four-year colleges to recognize their credits. I have suggested that states should. Likewise, my objection to the CSU proposal is both about the attempted usurpation of authority and the merits of what they want to do. Mandatory transmission is a great idea, but the mandate needs to come from the state (or less commonly, the accreditors). One college or sector cannot dictate anything to another. The Academic Senate must stay on track.

That might sound like a picky distinction, but it’s important.

The task of the state is not to administer what is taught on a small scale. It is about laying down ground rules and providing resources so that public institutions can carry out their tasks. These ground rules may need to evolve over time as the needs of the public change. For example, the California master plan (as far as I know) makes no mention of dual or concurrent enrollment. Stackable credentials without a degree aren’t really addressed either. The plan assumed that institutions would emerge as the population grew, but that mostly didn’t happen; A capacity issue developed that needed to be addressed. One shouldn’t blame Clark Kerr for not anticipating online education, but he didn’t, and it makes geographically defined service areas a bit more porous. These issues must be debated, and ultimately the high-level decisions must be made by duly elected officials from across the state, not just faculty boards. And these representatives must be democratically accountable for their decisions.

READ :  Blip In Online College Enrollment Doesn’t Mean What You Think

This places the responsibility on the state to recognize the entire educational ecosystem from pre-school to college. What are the basic rules for dual matriculation? For transfer? What do we want to emphasize? Do we promote cooperation or do we play universities off against each other? Whether the state achieves this through relatively direct control (as in the case of a chancellor or equivalent) or through politics is much less important. The key is to move away from looking at each institution in isolation and instead focus on how students move through them. Students who experience a credit loss on transfer are less likely to complete advanced degrees. the research on this is clear. If we pretend that every institution has sprung up spontaneously, like Hobbes’ mushrooms, then we could shrug and tell the students that the loan loss is their problem and that nothing can be done. When we look at the ecosystem as a whole, we quickly realize that connections either need to be nurtured or built, depending on the context.

The California Master Plan was, for its time, an attempt to do just that. It hit its moment. Now the world of higher education is much more complicated; more nuanced plans are required. This starts with recognizing that institutions exist in a system, and what matters most is the experience of the students moving through them. Local gatekeeping is not the way.