Monday, 29 October 2012

Articulating Value - Rethinking Phoenix and Funding California Public Higher Education

Late last week I read two articles whose topics have been widely covered in a number of different publications. I happened to read them back-to-back, which naturally invited comparison. The first article was Phoenix Reloads by Paul Fain in Inside Higher Ed, which touches on the hard times that the University of Phoenix has fallen upon (along with the rest of for-profit sector) during the past few years.  The article also points to the University’s recent cost cutting activities, and the University's strategy to refocus on career preparation and providing career service. Phoenix's approach is clearly communicated by the University in statements like,

“Our differentiation is that we will do everything to help them get the tools, skills and education,” says Mark Brenner, a company spokesman, all of which are designed to “help them in their career.”

Part of the Phoenix strategy is to leverage its “extensive” connection with national employers to create a meaningful pipeline from student registration to placement and employment. The punchline of the article is that although Phoenix is in a challenged sector, with their strategy, they may emerge stronger and more respected than before the for-profit implosion.

The second article was Calif. State Colleges Hold Their Breath as 'Trigger Cut' Proposition Heads for Vote by Lee Gardner published in the Government section of the Chronicle of Higher Education, which treats Proposition 30 on the California ballot. Basically the article points to shrinking support for Prop 30, which if passed would levy a sales tax to support the California higher education systems (University of California, California State University, and the Community College system) by preempting over a billion dollars of cuts. Gardner provides a little background about the cuts suffered by the systems during the past 5 years,

California's economy has suffered during the five years since the mortgage bubble burst, and support for higher education has suffered with it. Because of declining tax revenue and other strains, the community-college system has lost $668-million in state appropriations since 2008, a reduction of 24 percent. The UC system has seen its state support cut by nearly $1-billion over the same time, a drop of 27 percent. The Cal State system has lost $870-million, a drop of almost 30 percent since the recession began.
and points to some of the politics surrounding the Proposition specifically, and more generally to public education funding in California. Although the politics of Proposition 30 are interesting, I was struck by the difference between the University of Phoenix's approach to its financial challenges and those of California higher education.

First, I am a strong supporter of publicly funded higher education, and I believe that the current levels of public funding for public education are shameful. There are many differences between the financial problems for-profit and public higher education is facing. In many ways it is not fair or really productive to compare the sectors. That said, I am struck by the clarity in which the University of Phoenix has articulated it challenges and how it plans to address those challenges in terms of cost reduction, the value they are preparing to provide to their students and the workforce, and how they are going to deliver that value. I would enjoy reading more about these same issues from the public education systems. Clearly articulated and presented together in a common voice, the vision of a comprehensive system of public university and college system could be not only powerful and inspirational, but could remind us all of what we stand to lose by under-funding public education. I would be happy to be schooled by being referred to a statement that clearly communicates why a billion-dollar round of cuts would be bad for Californians and what types of opportunities would be lost for the State, not just the pain that would be felt on campuses.

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