THE BLOG
10/01/2014 03:07 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

California's Comeback Kid Tries to Kick Start Innovation in Higher Ed

Governor Jerry Brown has earned the moniker of California's Comeback Kid. Reinventing himself several times during his political career, he continues to gain distance from being the "Moonbeam" governor to becoming California's version of "Father Knows Best." Recently, Governor Brown has wrestled with California's higher education leadership over the need to enact systemic changes that provide the state a greater return on its investments. Californians of all stripes want the state to regain its image as a leader in higher education and innovation, but higher education leaders are challenged by current realities. Brown's $50 million Award for Innovation in Higher Education prize is a step in the right direction.

It's not lost on Jerry Brown that in the early 1960s his father, Governor Pat Brown, set into motion a powerful series of events to ensure California would reap the social and economic benefits of a highly educated and innovative citizenry. By enabling the creation of California's Master Plan for Higher Education, Governor Pat Brown ushered in the development of a robust and well coordinated three-tiered public system of higher education - the California Community Colleges, the California State University and the University of California. Combined, these institutions educate over 3 million students annually.

Today, California's systems of higher education are suffering from years of divestment. Spending on higher education adjusted for inflation is near a 30-year low. Lack of adequate funding has tested the ability of colleges and universities to provide sufficient access to meet the escalating demand for a college degree. In addition, the three systems have been slow to respond to changes in the economy and to threats from disruptive technologies.

Enter Governor Jerry Brown, version 2.0., who himself led the state as governor 21 years ago. Faced with the fallout of a major recession, increased demand for public higher education and major shifts in the workforce, Brown is tasked with outlining a new direction for California's public higher education. Plenty of consternation has ensued.

The Governor has been at odds with the pace of institutional change at the three systems. In the face of increasing demand for higher education, he has limited growth funds for each system while demanding more accountability for reducing the time it takes for an average student to complete a degree. While he has increased spending in categorical funds, his administration has limited increases in general fund revenue for fear that pre-recession priorities and the inefficiencies they created will be funded again. State media has been covering this struggle. Both the Los Angeles Times and the Press Telegram have written about the possibility that the CSU may one day become a transfer-only institution. Rhetoric and posturing no doubt, but that the issue is being raised points to the tension that exists.

In the Governor's 2014-2015 budget proposal, a $50 million line item for "Awards for Innovation in Higher Education" caught the attention of the higher education system leaders and college completion advocates alike. His proposal for an Innovation Award Fund generated concern in academia. Initially, system and legislative leaders tried to shift the funding back to other priorities but the governor prevailed.

For the first time, California will begin to reward public higher education institutions and public education partnerships that have launched innovations that improve equity amongst degree recipients, reduce time to degree and reduce the cost of obtaining a college credential.

And the awards will be substantial. Modeled on award programs like the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, recipients may receive a minimum award of $2.5 million. These successful models will be highlighted for leaders in education to replicate statewide thus everyone ultimately benefits.

The goal of the prize is to make the award meaningful and to encourage bold innovations that will once again place California as the leader in higher education in the nation - a worthy goal for a governor whose family history is forever connected to California higher education and who is poised to become California's leading comeback kid.

Details on California's Innovation in Higher Education Award can be found here.