Higher Ed: The Lowdown

P1230768One of the country’s  leading education scholars, John Aubrey Douglass, presented an informative lecture this evening on the life and death of California’s higher education system.  Sponsored by the Alameda County Office of Education, the lecture capped a visiting scholar series held at the Oakland Museum of California.

Starting with a historical overview, Douglass showed that California was a world pioneer in public higher education from the start of the 20th century.  The famous education Master Plan of 1960 spearheaded by Clark Kerr mainly preserved and ironed out wrinkles in what had already become a highly successful structure.  This system hit its peak, Douglass found, around 1970.  At that time, California ranked number one among the states in nearly all measures of educational excellence.

Since about 1970 it’s been all downhill.  Today, California ranks in the bottom ten states in all the same yardsticks.  It’s dead last among the states in the percentage of college-age kids who enter 4-year colleges.  It’s in the bottom five in education spending per student, either absolutely or as a percentage of personal income.  It’s dead worst in the number of K-12 students per teacher.  It’s in the bottom five in the percentage of minority students who enter or finish 4-year colleges.

Because California makes up a large slice of the United States, California’s decline has dragged down the whole country’s relative standing.  The U.S. today ranks No. 10 or lower in high school and college graduation rates among 25 relatively advanced countries.

Douglass, a senior research fellow at the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Higher Education and author of several books and numerous articles on California’s higher education system (see his website) , viewed the dismal state of the system today as presenting a sharp contrast with California’s rank as perhaps the ninth or tenth largest economy on earth.  Despite its aggregate wealth, California has the education system of a backward agrarian state like Louisiana or Mississippi.

I found myself puzzling over this apparent paradox, trying to understand how and why it came to be.  Douglass’ lecture was not focused on the hows and whys and offered few clues beyond generalities such as weak leadership, short-sighted politics, budget problems and the erosion of progressive taxation, as if the throttling of public education were an unintended byproduct.  But the death of education is a consequence of a string of political decisions extending over forty years, and can hardly be classified as an accidental side effect of otherwise well-meaning policies.  Whenever there is a consistent string of actions, there is an intent, and where there is an intent, the question to ask is the ancient one:  cui bono?  Who benefits?

From that perspective, the fact that California has a public education system befitting a backward rural state is no surprise at all.  A large and politically dominant part of California is a backward rural state.  The Central Valley and the outlying timber counties might as well be Mississippi and Louisiana without the river.  What use do the growers and timber barons have for an educated work force?  None whatever.  The less education they have, the less likely they are to demand higher wages, better conditions, a voice in government,and other threats to the system.  As for the owners’ own kids, they can afford to send them to private schools.

One might think that the high tech sector around Silicon Valley would form a counterweight to the Central Valley plantation lords, insisting on a public education system that turns out legions of PhDs and other highly educated employees.  But Silicon Valley has long learned to outsource that problem through immigration, which means relying on other countries to pay for producing the brains America needs.  The same is true in many of the graduate programs of the University of California:  only a handful of the post-docs are natives, the majority are from all over the world.

And so the collusion between the Central Valley and the Silicon Valley interests leaves few if any heavyweights with a stake in making real the California dream of equal and universal access to higher education.  The main constituency for this vision is the so-called middle class, meaning mostly the cohorts of the working class that came of age in the decades immediately following World War II.  They had the GI Bill, they had high rates of stable employment, union membership, rising wages, home ownership, and powerful motivation to send their sons and daughters to college.

Today, as numerous studies have shown, that “middle class” is being wrecked and gutted.  The state, like the country as a whole, is being twisted between a fraction of one per cent at the top, and the remainder.  The rate of poverty is much higher today.  Youth unemployment is much higher.  Union membership is way down.  Stable full time jobs with benefits are scarce.  More people work as contractors, as temps, part time, under the table.  The whole place is trending toward Mississippi and Louisiana.  So it’s not surprising that we have an education system that reflects the kind of place we’ve become.