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Oct 15, 2018

California’s misguided regulations of higher education

Here is where California’s legislators got it wrong. The education code prohibits “supplanting” state-funded courses with self-funded continuing education courses. The intent of the regulation is clear – legislators did not want state universities to force students into more expensive self-support programs. They also do not want the state systems to reduce state offerings and start chasing easy money from commercial ventures.

However, the approach is wrong for a number of reasons. First, look at the experiences of other states, where self-funded activities of public universities are less regulated and more encouraged. Nothing like what California worries about has materialized there. Public universities desperate to sustain their revenues cannot afford to cut stateside enrollments. Even if they could financially, the strong public service ethos compels them to use the state-provided resources to help as many students as they can. They effectively regulate themselves. Higher education has become a highly competitive market, and in fact, continuing education tuition rates tend to keep close to regular state-site rates. In other words, public universities have no incentive to supplant at any appreciable scale. When a program makes sense only on the self-funded side, students do not care about the difference as long as they receive affordable quality education.

Continuing education (a.k.a. extended studies) tends to provide access to hard-to-reach populations, such as working adults, residents of remote areas, as well as those with limited physical mobility. If we have a program that works for them only, why should we offer the same program on-campus, on the state-funded basis? This seems to be a silly arbitrary requirement. Continuing Ed also tends to drive enrollments in the stateside programs as well through co-advertising effect. Students are free to chose either a traditional on-campus format, or off-campus, remote, online or hybrid models. People always know what they want.

The result of the misguided fears by California legislators is that the state’s public universities are losing the entire segment of on-line and remote location programming to private and out-of-state public institutions. Why should Arizona State consider California one of its primary market for online programming? UC and CSU are no longer monopolies, especially in the graduate and post-baccalaureate segments, so they should not be regulated as monopolies. In addition, the state-funded offerings simply cannot accommodate all eligible students. The rule actually limits access instead of safeguarding it.

The non-supplanting rule is only one example. In general, the slow wheels of CA bureaucracy make public universities very sluggish and unable to react to changing demand. However, if were to look for structural bottlenecks, the non-supplanting rule seems to be the first obvious one to remove.

The State discourages its universities from becoming more entrepreneurial, and fosters dependency on public funds. However, California is unable to fund its public higher education fully. We are still not back at the pre-Great Recession levels. The choice is very simple: you can either regulate, but then continue to fund fully, or you can limit the budget growth, but let universities make up the difference with continuing education revenues: defund or regulate, but not both; it is that simple.

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