What’s Driving California’s Demand for Higher Education?

Even as tuition and fees rise and classes and staff are cut, the number of college applicants in California keeps rising. But why? And at what cost?

From everything we’ve heard from the rooftops, 2009 left California’s higher education in a sorry state. Fees rose, course offerings shrunk, staff and faculty were laid off, and class sizes were cut. There were revolutions at the UC campuses, earthquakes at state schools, and desperate pleas from overburdened community colleges. But despite the unadulterated fury demonstrated by students and faculty, one staggering fact complicates the higher education debate — students are applying to California colleges and universities at record levels.

Without finding the proper explanations for this situation, a student in Econ 101 might suggest that this means that college tuition isn’t yet high enough. Until tuition and fees reach the level at which applications for admission reach a plateau, it could be argued that California’s colleges and universities are making a poor business choice by working to keep the cost of education down. But, of course, public and even private schools have a more important mission than simply making money, and whether or not market forces determine the future of higher education in California, the massive number of applicants will certainly change some things about college education.

At public universities, one explanation for this increase in applicants comes from out-of-state and international students. The University of California system has angered many California residents for suggesting that it might increase its quota of out-of-state and international students so that it can charge the correspondingly higher tuition and fees paid by such students. International students are applying in droves to the world-renowned university system, whether directly in response to more outreach or simply due to greater global affluence. Between 2007 and 2009, applications from international students increased 57.4 percent, versus a 15.2 percent increase from out-of-state students and an 11.4 percent increase from California residents. But it’s easy to get lost in such percentages. Those increases reflect 10,838 more applicants from California but only 3,278 more international applicants and 1,592 out-of-state students. In fact, the year-to-year increases in applicants to UC schools are consistently several points greater than the corresponding increase in state population growth from one generation prior.

And as the UC system contemplates going more international, the Cal State system is considering going more local. The CSU system also experienced a record number of applications this year, forcing eighteen of the twenty-three campuses to close their deadline on the night of November 30, which is usually just a soft date for applicants who see that school as a priority.

Another explanation for the application boom is that California students seem to be hedging their bets by applying to several campuses instead of just the one or the two nearest their hometown. India Christman, executive director of enrollment at CSU East Bay, believes the increases are due in part to the fact that, “over the last few years we’ve had a very large high school graduating class.” But while numbers from the California Department of Education do indeed suggest steady growth in the population of high school graduates, the number of students qualified to enter the UC or CSU systems has only grown by about 1,000 students per year. Thus, it appears that the average qualified student is sending out more applications than in years past.

To cut down on this flood of applications from students who won’t ultimately end up attending their university, many state schools have decided to focus on admitting more local students in favor of those from outside the county. “Alameda and Contra Costa County are our number one priority,” Christman said.

Yet another reason for the applicant spike could be that more-specialized education is becoming a necessity in today’s job market, even for people who already have a college degree. At private Mills College in Oakland, which serves women at the undergraduate level but is co-ed at the graduate level, Undergraduate Dean of Admissions Giulietta Aquino and Graduate Dean of Admissions Carol Langlois have both seen a record increase in applications. Aquino said that around 25 percent of her undergraduate students are “resumers,” or students who are starting or returning to college education after the age of 23. “More students are applying as second-degree candidates,” she said. “Either the job market has changed or they’re just interested in pursuing a different field.” Specifically, these “second timers” could be distorting historical demand patterns for higher education, helping to fuel the “high-tuition, high-demand” conundrum.

These enrollment trends might even change the game for community colleges. A few weeks ago, San Diego Assemblyman Marty Block made news by suggesting that community colleges be equipped to grant Bachelor of Arts degrees in some fields to help students who can’t get into four-year schools finish their degrees. Whether or not the idea comes to fruition, the underlying assumption behind Block’s proposal is that there’s not enough educational infrastructure to go around for Californians.

But despite the scarcity of educational infrastructure, California could perversely benefit in some ways from tuition increases if no more classes are cut. If second-degree “resumers” are taking spots from first-time students, they will coincidentally be bolstering the state’s educational capital, raising the state’s educational and economic versatility beyond that of previous generations of students. Higher tuitions might also drive students toward more professional degrees in order to pay off their massive loans, prompting a similar type of demographic shift in the makeup of the state’s labor market.

Langlois of Mills said she has noticed that today’s grad students are “much more savvy, much more interested in cross-disciplinary studies” in order to pay off college debt and to market themselves to find a job after school. For instance, she said the grad students who apply to Mills often want to include technological training in their education, and even creative writing grad students are gravitating more toward a new department called “book art and creative writing,” which teaches students how to make books as well as write them. Students who look for diversity in their studies and become more technical in their abilities potentially have more success in a job market.

However, these economic and enrollment trends will also harm the state in obvious ways. Students acquiring more debt will be at a long-term disadvantage compared to their more affluent peers, thus widening the gap between the wealthy and the middle and lower classes. Also, if more students rely on financial aid, that need will inevitably increase the financial pressure on the state, causing cuts in the future.

For that reason, economist Stephen Levy of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy doesn’t see much silver lining in the present situation. At least for public colleges, he doubts that higher tuition will drive students toward more technical degrees because classes are being cut at the same time as tuition is going up, thus making it harder to complete degrees in fields like nursing or engineering in the typical timeframe. “I don’t think it’s a tuition problem, I think it’s a general budgetary problem,” Levy said. “They’re lowering admission levels and cutting classes.” Rather than attracting the wealthy or upwardly mobile into California’s higher education system, Levy believes the state is hobbling its future growth by making it harder for students to become skilled professionals.

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