State analyst critical of college graduation initiatives

File photo: students gather before graduation at Santa Monica College on June 11th, 2013.
File photo: students gather before graduation at Santa Monica College on June 11th, 2013.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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In a report released last week, California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended lawmakers increase base funding for the state’s higher education institutions – but the nonpartisan analyst also urged Sacramento to hold off on increasing funding for programs designed to improve graduation rates.

“We caution against augmenting funding for some other proposals coming from either the administration or the segments—including UC’s Academic Excellence initiative, CSU’s Graduation Initiative, and CCC’s Innovation Awards—as they lack sufficient justification at this time,” the LAO said in a statement.

The report comes at a critical time for those institutions. State budget negotiations are gearing up in the next few months as legislators weigh whether the state has enough funds to cover the governor’s budget proposals.

Cal State, for example, is asking the state for $75 million to fund its Graduation Initiative next fiscal year.

“Success is not free,” said James Minor, the senior strategist for Academic Success and Inclusive Excellence at the California State University Chancellor’s Office.

But the analyst’s office said lawmakers need more proof that it’s working.

“CSU has not undertaken a systematic evaluation to assess the impact each of these strategies is having on its graduation rates,” the LAO said in the report.

Minor said that the universities have the evidence that their strategies are working. The strongest evidence, he said, is that graduation rates have increased about 2 percent.

“From one year to the next, what that amounts to is an additional 6,000 degree holders that the CSU is producing,” he said.

The initiatives were started to improve the graduation rates at the three public higher education systems. Together, the UC, CSU, and community college systems educate nearly 2 million full time students.

The governor’s proposed budget sets aside $50 million for UC’s Academic Excellence Initiative. The analyst’s office said that program lacks clear objectives and recommends lawmakers do not fund this initiative unless UC administrators can provide stronger justification for the program.

The report also said the 113-campus California Community College system should not be given $25 million for innovation awards that, the LAO said, would likely help a small number of campuses and have smaller statewide impact.

“I think this is a time of experimentation and we need to be learning from this experimentation and supporting our public institutions as they move through this process,” said Andrea Venezia, executive director of the Education Insights Center at Sacramento State University.

The LAO’s report, she said, comes at a time when public higher education is still recovering from massive budget cuts during the recession.