Brown vs. The Board

California’s Epic Student Fee Battle: Student Choice Could Solve It

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Governor Jerry Brown — a longtime proponent of low-priced college — and UC President Janet Napolitano — politically adept agency manager and public college advocate — are at loggerheads over whether UC can raise its tuition 5% per year for the next five years.

Though seemingly a routine budget battle, at issue are fundamental questions about the “public” part of public higher education. Should UC focus on maintaining prestige or keeping tuition down? In an educational landscape with vastly more educational options for students, what obligation does the UC have to enable choice?

Colleges, particularly colleges aspiring to elite status, have real expenses. Their physical infrastructure is significant and needs maintaining. Pension and health care obligations are growing. The best faculty are courted by all the other elite college aspirants driving faculty salaries higher. Over time, state support has diminished as a percentage of per-student funding. With no dearth of applicants for high-brand colleges, their answer is easy: raise tuition.

On the other hand, the reason that publicly supported colleges exist is to make education affordable for that state’s students. Why else would there be an “in-state” price and an “out-of-state” price? Tuition growth that vastly outpaces inflation and a growing percentage of out-of-state students point to a public system more interested in promoting itself than serving its students. The Governor’s affordability solution calls for expanded online education, offering three-year degrees and allowing recognition of academic credit for students who can prove they are competent in certain subjects.

With only few subsidized choices, students are caught in the middle.

Though seemingly on a crash course, this brouhaha could be resolved by putting students in the driver’s seat. Unlike the days of the California master plan, students have vastly more choices today than ever before. In addition to the three public higher education tiers — community colleges, CSU and UC — students can get courses from anywhere and have been since the recession’s fee hikes forced them out of what we call “traditional” higher education.

Today, most students live online and have discovered that on the Internet, you don’t need to be a college to offer a college course. For California’s colleges, this isn’t a question of whether online education is as good as face to face education — almost all of California’s public colleges offer online courses and are willing to accept transfer credit for online course from their sister colleges. Rather, this is a question about whether California systems will allow other outside provider’s courses to count for credit as well. The cost and quality question center’s on whether students should be able to prove their mettle by earning certificates of credit from places like Western Governor’s University or other online college competency programs and whether California colleges are willing to recognize and reward a student’s more affordable choice.

What the UC Regents, Legislator’s and the Governor should do in this situation is begin the process of explicitly and clearly defining all pathways for free and low-cost transfer options into the UC system, giving students a better way to manage the overall cost of a degree.

The Governor is correct in calling for competency based approaches to help students’ save costs by asking UC and other colleges to recognize academic credit for students who can prove they are competent in certain subjects even if they learned it outside the university itself. There are many examples of low-cost, online alternatives that exist take StraighterLine, an educational company offering online college courses for $99 per month that already has a guaranteed credit transfer to five regionally accredited California colleges and a precedent of acceptance at nearly a dozen other CA public colleges. Why not provide student’s caught in the middle of this hapless UC Regent/Governor tuition tug-of-war with the ability to have a proactive choice on how to lower the cost of their degree’s themselves?

The Governor and Regents have an uncharted opportunity to utilize these providers and recognize their credit certifications if a student feels that is the most affordable choice to lower their cost of degree or provides an accelerated path to completion. At the minimum, the Regents should allow students completing these online courses to “test out” by utilizing the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) accepted by 2,900 colleges and universities as a way to earn the elusive credit even if a core college competency was learned outside the walls of UC itself.

The current tuition battle needs to be refocused on allowing students more affordable choices. In the internet era, we should move to an advanced higher education paradigm which rewards students on what they have learned, not the physical time spent and invested in scarce costly seats which has limited their ability to move through college at a faster pace costing them yet another year of crushing student debt.

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