How to revive the California model

Clark Kerr’s multiversity has spread across the world, but at home it is fraying at the edges. A rethink on tuition fees and on the wider benefits of higher education is needed to ensure its model of balancing excellence and access continues to impact international higher education.

The Californian model of higher education has achieved worldwide influence. Whether it was a process of conscious imitation, or a case of responding to similar conditions to those in California, since 1960 most countries have followed the Californian approach in two respects:

First, the continuous expansion of access to higher education in response to social demand; and second, adoption of the large science university, the multiversity, at the crown of the higher education system.

Clark Kerr’s multiversity is spreading to the four corners of the world. This poses challenges and opportunities for American higher education. Higher education is a core social sector that influences government, business, technology and other domains.

The evolving relations between universities in the US, and the fast-rising East Asian systems on the other side of the Pacific, will do much to shape the future in this country and the world – not just the future of higher education, but the future of society and economy.

So the Californian model – or aspects of it – has been the leading influence on higher education development everywhere. But the high access, high science model has run into difficulties at home.

Problems at home

Californian higher education is ruled not only by the 1960 master plan, but also by proposition 13 of 1978. The belief embodied in proposition 13, that government tax/spend is a reduction of individual liberty, is incompatible with common public provision.

In the last decade, state funding to UC has been cut by a third and students who would have entered in previous decades have been turned away. The promises of universal access and meritocratic transfer, at the heart of the Californian model and the rationale for popular support, have been broken.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty discusses the role of higher education, especially high status universities, in reproducing inequality. Says Piketty: "Inter-generational reproduction through education is lowest in the Nordic countries and highest in the United States, with Germany, France and the UK in the middle. In other words, social mobility through higher education is significantly lower in the US than in all of Western Europe."

In Degrees of Inequality, Suzanne Mettler agrees that equality of opportunity has run aground: “Over the past 30 years… our system of higher education has gone from facilitating upward mobility to exacerbating social inequality.”

Mettler shows how the US higher education system turns over “something that increasingly resembles a caste system: it takes Americans who grew up in different social strata and it widens the divisions between them and makes them more rigid”.

Mettler subjects for-profit colleges to a devastating critique. For-profits build student numbers with misleading claims about job prospects and transfer pathways. For-profit students experience the highest average loan debt in any sector, the lowest and slowest completion rates, questionable job prospects if they do graduate, and much the highest default rates on student loans.

For-profits enrol one in 10 college students but utilise one dollar in four of federal student aid. Public support provides 86% of their revenue and Mettler estimates the subsidy at US$32 billion a year.

For-profits have a curious glamour, and have long been propped up by pro-corporate policies in Congress. But even for students who do complete, the diploma is less valuable than a diploma from a public education college.

Paradoxically, in many quarters public higher education is understood solely in terms of the private rates of return to degrees, and graduate employment. There is little focus on the other outcomes for graduates – personal development, better health outcomes, more prudent personal financial management, more effective political participation, better adaptation to technological innovations, more diverse cultural activities, greater social tolerance of difference, and so on.

It is a radical reduction of what Californians should expect from their institutions.

In 1960, California’s rate of participation in higher education at 45% was almost double that of the country as a whole at 25%. Fifty years later in 2010, California was the 43rd state in the proportion of its 18-24 year-olds with baccalaureate status.

The University of California campuses are also feeling the pressure and, although still strong, are fraying at the edges. The weight of part-time and contingent faculty has been increasing for a long time. To compete against other Ivy League institutions they will need to raise tuition (which is currently capped) and secure more resources through philanthropy.

The public mission of the UC institutions is not necessarily compromised when in-state tuition rises. The ultimate determinant of the public character of the UC is who gets in. According to John Douglass, both Berkeley and UCLA each have more low-income students than the whole Ivy League: 40% of Berkeley undergraduates pay no tuition; 65% receive some financial aid; and half graduate with no debt.

Access and excellence

How can the state re-strengthen the Californian Model, with its double focus on access and excellence? Is it possible once again to move towards equality of opportunity and social mobility in American higher education?

I have two suggestions: firstly, in low tax countries like the US, government cannot finance high-quality higher education on a universal basis. But it is possible to design a tuition regime that couples higher charges with minimal deterrent effect and no socio-economic bias – a regime in which no student from any background is deterred on financial grounds.

How? Income contingent tuition loans by which the government advances to universities the value of the student tuition and the graduate later pays back the loan to government. These repayments are not subject to timed repayment, like commercial loans, but are income contingent.

Repayment begins when income reaches a threshold level and debt is subject to sub-commercial interest rates. Income contingent loans-based tuition has a soft impact on students. No money actually changes hands and studies repeatedly show that students from poor families are not deterred from participating by tuition costs in this form.

In the US, only the federal government could introduce income contingent tuition loans. It would shift tuition policy and public subsidy costs out of the jurisdiction of state governments, which no longer have the capacity, and would constitute a transformation almost on the scale of healthcare reform.

However, if implemented it would radically weaken the link between family finances and completion rates. It would put US higher education back on the road to equality of opportunity.

My other suggestion is about the public good functions of higher education. As noted, attention is largely focused on the private benefits of higher education, such as earnings, which are easy to measure.

But many outcomes of higher education are not captured as benefits for individuals, but consumed jointly. These include the contributions of institutions to government, industrial innovation, public health and social equity, and economic and political stability. These non-market individual benefits do not show in earnings equations.

Public and non-market goods produced in higher education are discussed only in vague terms. There is no agreed nomenclature. There are many loose normative claims and evidence-based approaches are underdeveloped.

Because public goods and non-market goods are not identified, observed or measured, they are under-funded and neglected. We need to develop social scientific methods that allow us to grasp these goods comprehensively.

How can we move beyond a solely economic understanding of these public and non-market goods without setting aside economics? How do we measure such goods, while satisfying both inclusion and rigour?

Quantification is essential if we are to provide governments, public and institutions with greater clarity about public outputs, but it is also essential to observe and monitor aspects that cannot be measured. This is an important project on which we can work together, on a cross-country basis.

If California could develop a systematic and agreed approach to measuring and monitoring the social and non-market benefits of higher education, it would once again lead the world in an important policy area.

*Professor Simon Marginson is professor of international higher education in the Institute of Education at the University of London. Email: s.marginson@ioe.ac.uk

This article is an edited extract from the fourth of his recent Clark Kerr lecture series given at the University of California, Berkeley. The lectures are sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the University of California Office of the President.