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Closing Time in California

October 11, 2011

The 38-year-old California Postsecondary Education Commission will not be getting a funeral when it is laid to rest next month.

When the state coordinating board closes its doors for the last time on Nov. 18, few will be there to pay respects to the once-touted agency that served as a check on the governor and on institutions of higher learning.

California Gov. Jerry Brown nixed funding for the agency in the state’s latest budget. In his veto message, the governor said that "while I appreciate the importance of coordinating and guiding state higher education policy, I believe CPEC has been ineffective." H.D. Palmer, California deputy director of the department of finance, said that while the dollar amount for one commission may be small, the governor was staring down a $25 billion budget deficit. Eliminating CPEC will save $927,000 in the budget next year.

But some say the agency -- born from California’s lauded 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education -- played an important role in recommending policies to the governor, aggregating student data to identify trends, and conducting studies on facility and programmatic changes at public institutions of higher education across the state. Most experts agree that the 1.6 billion data records collected and maintained on its website is a treasure trove of information that should not be tossed aside. (A rescue appears to be in place.)

Others aren’t convinced about the organization’s overall influence on state leaders.

“CPEC was designed to be ineffective, and at that it excelled,” said Bob Shireman, who spent an eventful year leading the Obama administration's Education Department before returning to California to head a nonprofit group on higher education competitiveness in the state. “I think California is living on the fumes of its past. It desperately needs vision and leadership in higher education.”

Although there will be few letters of condolence or bouquets of flowers, CPEC’s demise is a small piece of a larger, faltering higher education system in California, some experts say.

Waning Support

California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education was a road map for building one of the best public education systems in the world. It was ahead of the curve, recommending universal access and low costs for students.

The master plan also recommended creating CPEC, a coordinating board to oversee the three public education systems in the state: the California Community Colleges, California State University and University of California systems. CPEC advised the governor, coordinated long-term planning, reviewed new degree programs and evaluated budget requests from state-supported colleges and universities. It was also responsible for awarding the Improving Teacher Quality Program grant, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. With the agency's closure, this function will be shifted to the California Department of Education.

The master plan did not set the agency up for success during a time when some political and institution leaders decided to stop listening to it, according to many of those who have watched its work.

The agency was designed to give informed recommendations and advise, not to vote, veto or dictate, said Karen Humphrey, CPEC’s executive director. She said that in recent years few recommendations were totally ignored by institutions, but there were times when "the politics of the proposal were already well in place by the time CPEC was involved and our recommendation was overridden."

In 2007, for example, the University of California at Irvine proposed creating a law school, which the commission reviewed and advised against because of a preponderance of law schools already saturating California higher education. The university went ahead with the law school, however, with the backing of policy makers.

A year and a half ago, CPEC produced a study identifying whether the University of California at Riverside needed a proposed medical school. CPEC concluded there was a need for the medical school, but advised delaying the opening until adequate funding was secured. However, the university opted against the recommendation and went ahead with the construction of the school.

"CPEC did carry out its statutory role, which was to provide an informed recommendation to policy makers; the ultimate decision rested in their hands," Humphrey said in an e-mail message.

From one institutional leader's perspective, losing CPEC is a great loss to the state. Lawrence T. Geraty, who represents California's independent colleges on the CPEC board and is president emeritus at La Sierra University, said that there has been a butting of heads on certain projects, but that the data and analysis CPEC provides are invaluable.

"This is just one small commission, but it provided data that were very helpful in making policy for higher education," he said. "I don’t see how the state can get along without it."

Melinda Guzman, a California State University trustee and the system's CPEC representative, said the success and growth of the systems forced a shift in how the system leaders and CPEC officials interacted. In years past, institution presidents would attend CPEC meetings, but once the colleges and universities grew in size and clout, communication among the specific institution leaders and CPEC wavered.

"Certainly there is a role for a CPEC-type institution with regard to program review and educational institutional review, but in terms of being an oversight commission for all of higher education, that role really changed over the years and became more questionable," she said.

Many education leaders agree that the agency's strength was in its aggregated student data that spans decades. It tracks students through their time in the higher education system, including demographics and graduation rates. This data collection and analysis helped CPEC inform the governor, with quantifiable measures, what was happening in higher education in the state.

But with its defunding, “California is losing its single source of independent research and evaluation of higher education,” Humphrey said. “It’s frustrating because people didn’t see why we did it, didn’t see what we could offer,” she said.

Patrick Callan served as the executive director of CPEC from 1978 to 1986. It’s bittersweet to see the agency close, he said, but it’s not a shock.

“Whatever the agency might have done right or wrong didn’t matter,” said Callan, who is now director of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. “There has been a remarkable lack of interest on the part of the governor and the legislature in higher education in California in recent years.”

Callan said CPEC no longer had the ear of the governor and public institution leaders, with dire financial problems putting the final nail in the coffin for CPEC.

And the agency has been on its deathbed for several years, said Christopher Cabaldon, a principal partner with Capitol Impact, a California education consulting firm.

“The capacity of the agency to give support has been eroding for some time, gradually starving [it],” said Cabaldon, who is also the mayor of West Sacramento. “CPEC has been somewhat hollowed out over the last several years.”

CPEC lost supporters in the legislature and at colleges and universities. Without people championing its work, the agency lost relevance, Cabaldon said.

And while some would disagree, it is a sad day to see CPEC closing, said John Douglass, senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, at the University of California at Berkeley.

CPEC was an outgrowth of the master plan, and an integral part of this idea of a coordinated higher education system, he said. This move, he said, is a “significant disinvestment in higher education.”

“Lots of pieces of this grand design are eroding quickly,” he said. “Public higher education will continue without having CPEC but it does relate to larger questions of how we can fashion a strategic model in the future to increase education attainment rates.”

Master Planning

Balancing the state budget is certainly no easy task, but the continuous chipping away of investment in higher education is alarming, Douglass said.

“This isn’t about thinking rationally about how to move forward and address the challenges of the future,” he said. “It’s more about emergency cutting and looking down at your feet instead of the horizon.”

CPEC's closure, some say, is symbolic of the erosion of the master plan. Higher education policy making seems to have been driven by lobbyists with personal or institutional interests, rather than the master plan's statewide or public interests, said David Longanecker, president of Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

CPEC’s closure is another knock to an ever-eroding vision, but an overhaul of the master plan could be just the boost California higher education needs, said Longanecker. The master plan called for low tuition, easy student access and quality student aid. But now, Longanecker said, many of California's public institutions are shifting their focus to over-expanding programs and facilities. For example, he said, California State University at Monterey Bay opened in 1994, but has never pulled in high student enrollments. It has nearly 5,000 undergrads enrolled this year, compared to nearly 30,000 undergraduates at many of its fellow system institutions.

Simply put, California has lost its vision for higher education, Callan said. It lacks an entity that knows the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; a steward of public interest on higher education policy is nowhere to be seen, he said.

Last year, the California legislature held hearings to assess the Master Plan, adopting a resolution that highlighted some of its shortcomings.

"The State of California has no articulated, comprehensive statement of goals for California’s system of higher education," the resolution states. "The lack of these goals makes it difficult to develop sound systems of criteria for advancement or clear systems of accountability."

On the Horizon

Humphrey, who is now retiring in the wake of CPEC’s defunding, predicts that a new coordinating board of some sort will be put in place in California in a few years. Student access to higher education in a state with a booming population has to remain an important agenda point, and she said she believes legislators will see that an autonomous coordinating board can help bridge any knowledge gaps.

However, Palmer said, the state still faces between a deficit of between $1.5 billion and $3 billion over the next three years. Given that, opening a similar coordinating board in California does not look likely in the short term. The onus is on the state system segments to pick up where CPEC has left off, he said.

In one small step, a repository of the electronic data will now be hosted on the California Community College System's website. Older historical materials will be placed in the state library and state archives.The data follows student transfer trends, pathways from community college to public institutions, graduation rates and demographics, among other things.

“It’s really kind of a banana republic not having an entity that can provide some analysis of data collection,” Douglass said. “If you do think higher education is important for socioeconomic mobility and competitiveness, then you would say the state of California needs some sort of coordinating board.”

 

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