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SJ Mercury News: Time for State to Transform College System

Posted by the San Jose Mercury News Jan. 16, 2013.

The online education program San Jose State University announced Tuesday, with the help of Gov. Jerry Brown, is small — just three classes of 100 students each. But it is a big step toward a new future for higher education that Brown introduced in last week’s budget proposal.

California’s three-legged system of higher education — community colleges, the California State University and University of California systems — has been a primary driver of the Golden State’s economic engine. But it has been slow to adapt to new realities. Costs are rising unsustainably; tuition has nearly doubled at CSU and UC since 2007. Just 16 percent of CSU students finish a degree within four years. And there is a troubling mismatch between the number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and the number of jobs in those fields that companies will need to fill.

Part of the problem is declining state support. The UC and CSU budgets were cut $1.6 billion, inflation adjusted, in the past decade. Although Brown wants to restore some of that, taxpayer funding will not return to its former levels.

A major transformation is needed to lower costs for students and taxpayers and to increase the number of students getting degrees, especially in STEM fields. Brown included $37 million in this budget for Internet learning initiatives, along with hundreds of millions more to restore some cuts. But he is also demanding that the systems reduce costs, improve access to courses students need for degrees and improve graduation rates.

The SJSU pilot the governor praised Tuesday has elements of all of that. The partnership with Udacity, a Palo Alto online education company, is for three classes: entry-level math, elementary statistics and college algebra. The courses are required, but too many students have trouble passing. That makes them good choices for this experiment with an interactive curriculum and a low cost — $150, not much more than a community college course.

SJSU President Mohammad Qayoumi is a leading advocate for sweeping reforms. He co-wrote a paper last fall recommending that dozens of introductory courses — things like Economics 101 — be redesigned and offered online. The classes would have a common numbering system, and all three college systems would use them.

This would benefit students, taxpayers and businesses. It would make transferring from community college seamless. It would help keep students in school in the crucial first years by making the curriculum more interactive, which has been proven to engage students. And Qayoumi estimates it could reduce the overall cost of higher education by 16 percent.

This won’t happen quickly. But the SJSU pilot, along with Brown’s enthusiasm, could begin the transformation.