Opinion

Wanted: A statewide database for higher education

Sather Tower at UC Berkeley, looking toward the bay. (Photo: Chao Kusollerschariya, via Shutterstock)

How can the state of California make intelligent public policy on higher education when it does not have the data to do so?

This simple question underscores every governor’s and legislator’s dilemma when they annually establish funding levels for California’s postsecondary education system. There is no integrated statewide database for higher education.

Current estimates are that we have over two million Californians that need forms of advanced education and training.

Its absence is partially understandable. California’s Master Plan for Higher Education invested in a three-tiered system of postsecondary institutions: the community colleges, the California State University and and the University of California.

Each segment collected and stored its own data and shared it with policymakers to the extent that each segment wanted to. As long as the system flourished and the state had abundant fiscal resources, the need for an integrated approach was not apparent.

The reality of the three tiers has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades.  Dividing lines between the three blurred, as the focus on transfer from two-year to four-year institutions deepened and as institutions expanded the types of programs they offer. The state could not meet their financial needs.

California’s Master Plan for Higher Education invested in a three-tiered system of postsecondary institutions:Businesses struggles to find properly trained employees. Current estimates are that we have over two million Californians that need forms of advanced education and training, and that the job market can absorb them.

How should the state use its critical dollars in higher education? Should the state continue its tradition of institutional-based funding or should it alter its mix toward a more student-oriented policy?

To answer this question and others, policymakers need good data. In the absence of an independent source of information about key aspects of California’s higher education system, participants enter policy conversations with different sets of facts and varying levels of knowledge. It is stupid, wasteful and unnecessary to continue to make educational policy in the dark.

California leads the digital age. Isn’t it time that the state uses the tools that are created here for our own good?

Build a statewide database for all forms of higher education — public, private non-profit and private for-profit — that includes common benchmarks and clear definitions. Manage the database. Use it to make sound policy that best serves the people of California.

Steven Koblik is president emeritus of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. He is a member of the Leadership Council for California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy.


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