Grading Higher Education in California

At the high-end of the scale, we all commend Stanford, the UC system, and many of the mid-sized and large schools for the wealth of powerful graduates they turn out. Then, there are the high-end selective small schools like CalTech, the Claremont colleges, and other fine institutions across the state who are graduating many future leaders.

Nobel Prize winner Pearl Buck famously said,

“Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”

What does that quote have to do with higher education? Pretty simple, most of those who are reading this article are old people (sorry), and we must “not fear the young or be deserted by them.”

As Californians, and more generally, as Americans, we should strive to ensure every opportunity is afforded the next generation to earn a high-quality (and we would argue affordable) education, so the next generation may effectively thrive and support us old people. This is not a zero-sum game (that phrase seems to be popular these days).

The super intelligent and well off have their select institutions in California, although we may be able to argue that we could use one more Stanford. Meanwhile, the rest of California has options that seem suitable to support the majority of students, but in reality, when looking at the numbers, fall well short.

Starting at the most accessible level, what is happening at the community colleges can only be described as troubling. California’s community colleges appear, generally, to be doing well. If you have a student in high school, you likely are aware of a multitude of opportunities coming from your local community college (e.g. dual enrollment, honors programs with direct pathways to a UC education, vocational programs, and so on). There is a lot going on.

What is troubling about the community college system, and the way we often view the world, is the sense that if 10 programs are good, then 20 programs are gooder (sorry, Professor Glessner,)

There is a troubling trend that appears to be going on at the community college level. While programs (and access) continue to expand, the numbers of students attending California community colleges continue to shrink.


Tuition at California community colleges is the lowest in the nation, with many community college districts offering free enrollment to tens of thousands of students. Yet, overall enrollment numbers in California have declined steadily over the past decade and are below their peak by more than 13% (California Community College Chancellor’s Office).

Providing more access and more programs has not resulted in increased enrollment.

Enrollment in California community colleges have dropped by more than 13% since 2008.

Enrollment in California community colleges have dropped by more than 13% since 2008.

2018 Fall Enrollment - 1,589,745

2017 Fall Enrollment - 1,596,088

2008 Fall Enrollment - 1,823,726



According to a 2017 GAO report, community college students lose an average of 37 percent of their credits during transfer. The more credits a student loses, the less likely they are to complete a bachelor’s degree. (Inside Higher Ed, April 12, 2019).

This is just one of many factors that students face to reach the goal of earning a bachelor’s degree from a community college. Whatever the case, most community colleges in California report that few of their first-time full-time students transfer to four-year degree program within six years of starting. At many of those colleges, the statistics are below 10%.

To the general public, these statistics seem baffling. How is it that community colleges, which are based on the ideal to transfer students to colleges and universities for their four-year degree, are seemingly so misaligned with the goal to award the bachelor’s degree. If fewer than 10 out of 100 of first-time students are able to earn their bachelor’s degree in four years, we (as taxpayers and constituents) should ask if there is a better way to deliver the promise of higher education.

Community college advocates often argue, “When you are open to everyone, you are going to have a high failure rate.” Access is important, but maybe there should be “qualified” access. This may prove unpopular, but is it of no benefit to provide unrealistic expectations to students who are either unprepared, undisciplined, or ill-equipped to achieve. Failing or dropping out is not an effective motivator for any individual.

Military or public service (e.g. Peace Corps), trade or vocation school programs, or apprenticeships could all lead to further development and maturity for the student, and ultimately, his/her success. The latter of these options, apprenticeships, is often floated as a good opportunity, but there are almost no opportunities available.

In future articles, we will examine several other challenges and common misconceptions about the state of higher education in California, and more generally, nationwide.


Eric Blum, MPA – President

President Blum earned his graduate degree from the University of Washington and his BA in Government, Politics, Philosophy, and Ecnomics from Claremont McKenna College.