University of California: Reform or Else

Last Updated Mar 24, 2010 3:42 PM EDT

The University of California is facing its greatest financial crisis of all time, but so far the system has University of California protestpunted in offering real solutions.

The University of California generated a lot of publicity this week when the UC Commission on the Future unveiled preliminary suggestions on fixing the mess. One university administrator, however, acknowledged that the recommendations were "admittedly bland."

The "solutions" included:

  • Getting more students to graduate in three years.
  • Pursuing more private donations.
  • Doubling the number of out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition.
  • Creating a pilot program of 40 online courses throughout the system.
I suspect the reasons for these underwhelming suggestions is because all of the University of California players, including each campus, want to protect their own turf.

In an interview in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Patrick M. Callan, the president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education made this observation:

"The only thing the university seems to be decisive about is making sure the commission is structured so nobody's ox is going to get gored."
If the University of California, and other universities don't get serious about reform, they may share the same fate as the steel, car and newspaper industries, which didn't react to the changing times.

I think there is no doubt that higher education will look vastly different in the future. The current system of high employee costs, faculty who teach few classes, lecture halls packed to the gills with undergrads and rising prices can't be sustained.

College for $99 a Month

I doubt that schools will make meaningful changes voluntarily. It's going to be innovative businesses like StraighterLine that nudge the stodgy universities to get out of their way. At least that's the opinion of Kevin Carey, the policy director at the Education Sector, who is one of the most astute observers of the higher-ed world.

Here is a snippet of what Carey had to say in a fascinating essay entitled, College for $99 a Month.

Like Craigslist, StraighterLine threatens the most profitable piece of a conglomerate business: freshman lectures, higher education's equivalent of the classified section. If enough students defect to companies like StraighterLine, the higher education industry faces the unbundling of the business model on which the current system is built. The consequences will be profound.

Ivy League and other elite institutions will be relatively unaffected, because they're selling a product that's always scarce and never cheap: prestige. Small liberal arts colleges will also endure, because the traditional model-teachers and students learning together in a four-year idyll-is still the best, and some people will always be willing and able to pay for it.
But that terrifically expensive model is not what most of today's college students are getting. Instead, they tend to enroll in relatively anonymous two- or four-year public institutions and major in a job-oriented field like business, teaching, nursing, or engineering. They all take the same introductory courses: statistics, accounting, Econ 101. Teaching in those courses is often poor-adjunct-staffed lecture halls can be educational dead zones-but until recently students didn't have any other choice. Regional public universities and non-elite private colleges are most at risk from the likes of StraighterLine. They could go the way of the local newspaper, fatally shackled to geography, conglomeration, and an expensive labor structure, too dependent on revenues that vanish and never return.
I'd bet my own college degree that Carey is right.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and you can also find her at TheCollegeSolutionBlog. Follow her on Twitter.

University of California image by ben.chaney. CC 2.0.