California’s Power

The Los Angeles Times is apparently helping the University of California defend the status quo. This is understandable, but disturbingly short-sighted. According to an editorial in the Times

Colleges and universities across the nation, prompted by ubiquitous rankings based on factors that often have nothing to do with the quality of education, have been engaging in an academic arms race for top managers and star professors, who command big salaries. It’s a race that has gone to extremes, and California could indeed choose to drop out of it. But it would do so at a tremendous cost.

The greater point of the editorial is that the state legislature should not take over operations of the state’s higher education system. This is a very valid opinion, and one with which I heartily agree.

That being said, if the race is a problem, stop the race. Or change the race. That would be a risky decision, but far, far less risky than if a school like Williams or even a state university system like that of Nevada were to try and make changes.

The California higher education system is actually one of the few entities in America that can enact real change and force the rest of the country to adapt. That’s because of its size.

The University of California enrolls more than 222,000 students. California State University has more than 350,000 students. There are more than 2.5 million students in enrolled in California Community Colleges. Almost one of every five college students in America is studying at a public college in California.

What California does matters. In 2001 the president of the University of California proposed “that the university no longer include the SAT I test as a requirement for students applying to UC’s eight undergraduate campuses.” The president reasoned that because wealthy students could spend money to improve their SAT scores, the SAT was essentially unfair.

But the University of California generates the most demand for standardized tests in America. The College Board, which owns, publishes and develops the SAT, couldn’t afford to lose so many customers. And so the College Board changed the test: adding a writing section, changing the questions, making the test more difficult, and altering the scoring system. High school students have taken the new test since 2005.

This isn’t a minor issue. If the state of New Hampshire decided it wouldn’t pay attention to college ratings that could be trouble for the state. The U.S. News & World Report rankings would go down. A lot less students would apply to the schools. But New Hampshire only has six public colleges. This is not true of California. The system is so big that it influences how other colleges operate. No one can afford to leave California behind.

If California’s higher education is serious about change, it’s the one place that can force change on the rest of the country. That’s a good thing. Let’s stick up for yourselves, California. If you want to end the arms race in higher education, or if you want colleges to compete for different things, go ahead.

If you know it’s wrong, fix it. No one else can.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer