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California Economy Will Slide Without Huge Boost in College Grads

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

By Tanya Schevitz
Calbuzz Education Correspondent

California faces a shortage of nearly one million college-educated workers by 2025 that will further devastate its economy unless education leaders act quickly to boost college graduation rates, according to a new Public Policy Institute of California report. Without these workers, employers will abandon the state in large numbers while start-ups will shun the state, the researchers said.

The report, “Closing the Gap: Meeting California’s Need for College Graduates,” notes that California already ranks low nationally in the percentage of its population with college degrees. The state is likely to slip further, at a time when well-educated Baby Boomers are retiring and populations of demographic groups with traditionally low college attendance rates are soaring, PPIC researchers Hans Johnson and Ria Sengupta reported.

Doom and gloom reports about California’s education system are a dime a dozen, but what makes this one different is that Johnson set forth a series of reasonable and measured steps to address it.

Far from the usual white paper call for huge new spending initiatives in education, the PPIC report offers a practical agenda for chipping away at a major problem, while acknowledging that sweeping new investments are unlikely at a time of economic turmoil, budget shortfalls and ever-increasing costs, with public universities and colleges already increasing class sizes and slashing student support systems.

Some of the state’s most skeptical education policy experts applauded the proposals in the report.

“None of this is rocket science,” Steve Boilard, director of higher education for the Legislative Analyst’s office, told Calbuzz, adding that he was uncharacteristically impressed by the report and its suggestions. “What we have to do is have a more productive education system.”

For example, the researchers said, raising the state’s college attendance rates slightly, from 56 to 61 percent, and modestly increasing transfer rates to four year universities would boost the number of college educated workers by 500,000 a year by 2025. Even more importantly, universities must improve their success rates with students they already have; raising the graduation rates of current students would yield major results to help head off the migration of jobs elsewhere, Johnson said.

In another recommendation, PPIC found that many students accepted into the 23-campus California State University are simply unprepared for college study. As a result, CSU in recent years has given an early placement exam to provide students a heads-up that they need more preparation before enrolling. This and related programs could help boost CSU’s graduation rate enough to yield an additional 200,000 graduates by 2025, benefiting employers and California’s battered economy.

Noting there are 1.6 million students in the community college system, researcher Johnson said even a modest increase in transfer rates could make a big difference. After years of hand wringing and little action in this area, and against a backdrop of steady reductions in transfer slots and cuts in programs like counseling, there are signs that higher ed officials are beginning to address the problem:

Although UC reduced overall freshman enrollment this year, the system added 500 seats earmarked for transfer students, while CSU has worked to bring more rationality to its confusing system of determining which community college courses are eligible for CSU credit. Also, all three higher ed systems recently established a taskforce to craft strategies for increasing the numbers of transfer students.

While the policy prescriptions seem relatively easy and straightforward, getting them enacted is quite a different matter.

Said the analyst Boilard: “It really just is having the political will.”

Tanya Schevitz is a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter who uncovered widespread abuse in the University of California’s compensation and disclosure practices while on the higher education beat. Her investigative reporting resulted in significant changes in university policies and practices.