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Officials huddle over long-term plans for higher education

The agency best suited to lead the discussion on California higher education is now closed, its knowledgeable staff scattered, the fate of its databases and remaining responsibilities unresolved.

Funding for the California Postsecondary Education Commission, formerly charged with coordinating the state’s higher education system, was vetoed earlier this year for what the administration described as its ineffectiveness. It closed it’s door Nov. 18, saving the state an estimated $1.9 million.

But in fact, the agency had played an important role as the only independent body looking at statewide needs across the tiers of higher education. And, perhaps even more crucially, CPEC collected, linked, and refined years of student data from each system, a critical tool for assessing the state’s educational needs.

All gone, with the stroke of a blue pencil.

“California is behind many other states in our ability to oversee, coordinate, and guide our higher education system, and I think the Governor’s veto set us back some,” said Steve Boilard, a higher education specialist at the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The LAO is holding meetings with the administration and higher education officials to come up with recommendations for the replacement of CPEC, due January 2012.
According to Boilard, the state can live without a many of CPEC’s laundry list of statutory responsibilities. But management of the databases and review of the higher education system are essential functions in need of a new home.

Unfortunately, finding a well-suited existing alternative or creating an entirely new agency are both challenges in current budget environment, which led to CPEC’s elimination in the first place.

The perfect balance of independence, expertise, and eligibility under federal privacy laws has eluded concerned parties debating the issues for months now.  

Even the Department of Education currently lacks the jurisdiction to legally receive higher education data.

The California Community College Chancellor’s Office is temporarily housing the databases and running the CPEC website. The data was refreshed for the current year before CPEC closed it’s doors, and access is still available to researchers.

But the common central server is now portioned into each segment of higher education, with separate logins, and each responsible for keeping up their own data, no one segment having master control.

With no new funding made available by the state for the data’s management, and tenuous legal access to data across the tiers, the major players in higher education need to decide the ultimate fate of the server and how to maintain the type aggregate data traditionally made available by CPEC, by next year.

Aside from the resources and legal authority to having manage system wide data, CPEC also conducted crucial research on things like program performances and transfer pathways, something that won’t be easily replaced by the schools.

“Whereas we can manage the data, there’s no availability to create the type of reports CPEC analysts did, and a lot of folks in my world lament the loss of that,” said Patrick, Vice Chancellor of Technology, Research, and Information Systems at the California Community Colleges.

That type of analysis was an important part of coordination across the tiers, but also a tool for determining statewide needs. If the schools continue to manage their own data that leaves no independent body looking out for what’s best for all of California.

And any new or expanded agency given the task will most likely face the same pitfalls as CPEC, unless California leaders finally sit down to discuss goals for higher education.

“California has never set outcome goals for, you know, how many graduates we need, what kind of degree paths do they need, what kind of completion rates are we looking for,” said CPEC executive director, Karen Humphrey, “If California at a state level could establish some good coherent state goals whatever coordination mechanism you may have will be more effective.”

CPEC began pushing more aggressively for a public higher education agenda before it’s unexpected veto earlier this year, and was probably in the best position to facilitate that conversation.

The formulation of higher education statewide goals has so far been limited to outside organizations like California Competes and the Public Policy Institute of California.

But recent reviews of the California Master Plan for Higher Education have noted the state’s lack of goals for things for like the percentage of the population that needs toattend college or growth in the STEM fields, which all play into meeting the state’s social and economic needs.

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