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Debating the Future of Higher Education in the San Francisco Bay Area

Photo by Misha Bruk

A Year of Learning panel asks how the region can continue generating wealth while also advancing educational opportunity 
 

The colleges and universities of the San Francisco Bay Area helped create “Silicon Valley,” the economic phenomenon that’s made the region the envy of the world. And yet not every student living in the Bay Area today has an equal chance of receiving the college education they need in order to succeed. 
 
Under the auspices of Stanford’s Year of Learning initiative, a panel of experts in Californian economics, history, politics, and education met recently to tease out how this situation came to be, and ask how the region’s post-secondary ecosystem might evolve to help sustain the economic growth it has enabled while also spreading the benefits of that growth to all who live and work in the area.
 
The discussion, led by Stanford Education Professor Mitchell Stevens and held in front of a packed house at Stanford’s Barnum Digital Learning Research Hub, opened with Stevens noting that most American colleges and universities are funded by local or regional governments and draw the majority of their students from the region, too. And yet, he said, governments commit those funds “in large measure because they want to connect their particular places with cosmopolitan networks and ideas.” 
 
If the emphasis within Bay Area institutions of higher learning – especially its four year colleges – has tended more towards the national and international in the last fifty years, that’s now changing, Stevens suggested, party thanks to new educational technologies developed in Silicon Valley that could empower institutions to serve their locally-based students in new ways.
 
That’s no easy thing, however, as the panel’s first speaker, Michael Kirst, President of the California State Board of Education and a professor emeritus of education at Stanford, made clear. Kirst shared recent research undertaken with Richard Scott, professor emeritus of sociology at Stanford, and Manuelito Biag, a senior research associate at Stanford’s John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, that surveys the broad landscape of post-secondary education in the Bay Area, which includes a total of 375 institutions, ranging from small vocational schools to Ph.D. granting universities with an international profile. 
 
In a region with a highly dynamic, rapidly changing work environment, noted Kirst, most of these schools remain heavily regulated and much slower to change. The result, he said, “are tensions that make it difficult for the Bay Area in the future to accommodate the needs of students and the region’s economy.”
 
In looking to mitigate those tensions, Kirst suggested that we need to start thinking and acting from a regional perspective, to remember to include all types of post-secondary institutions in the discussion, and to consider investing much more in the particular kinds of education – four year degrees at the CSU, for example – that are in highest demand. 
 
Sean Randolph, senior director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, next offered a business perspective on workforce needs in the area. Companies move to places with the best available pool of human capital, he noted, and that is one reason why they have come to the Bay Area in the past. And yet the region now faces a massive skills gap, with an estimated 1-2 million workers being undertrained, and a rapidly shifting demographic profile that educational institutions must acknowledge it they’re to bring those new populations into the economy. “How, then, can the Bay Area continue to have what is arguably the richest pool of talent in the world?” he asked.
 
Echoing Kirst, Randolph suggested the answer lies in better regional coordination to ensure that educational resources match needs. “There is no regional governance here,” he observed. “But doing this piecemeal is just not going to work the way it did.” In addition, Randolph recommended adopting more web-based tools for education, and increasing funding for career technical education and for entrepreneurial training and support. 
 
Despite the current lack of regional planning, chancellor of the Foothill/De Anza Community College District Judy Miner, suggested there is hope. “The greater Bay Area really has a unique combination of businesses, policy makers, and educational institutions poised to be able to solve educational inequality in our region,” she said, and pointed to US government’s “College Promise” tuition-waver initiative as a model for how to move forward.
 
As educators of the largest number of students in the area, the 28 local community colleges will be key to realizing that change, Miner added, and are already working together to maximize their impact through the Bay Area Community College Consortium. Large research institutions like Berkeley and Stanford also have a role to play, she argued, by conducting studies with the community colleges that can help them more effectively serve their large and shifting student populations. Similarly, businesses could offer more students work experience to prepare them for the jobs those businesses need filled. 
 
Through these kinds of collaborations, Miner asked, “Might there be a “Bay Area College Promise” that we could offer to residents of our region – and might that be one of the pathways that indeed would lead to the ending of educational inequality in the Bay Area?” 
 
The final speaker, Margaret O’Mara, University of Washington history professor and author of Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley, took a historian’s perspective on the constraints and opportunities facing the region. Fundamentally, she said, Bay Area residents should be optimistic since  “Silicon Valley has the capacity to set the agenda for where the United States and the rest of the world goes next.” 
 
Education researchers often default to a narrative of declining public investment in higher education over the past half century, but O’Mara noted that the field has also opened up to more students from a much wider range of backgrounds over that time. “So how do we take advantage of these changes?” she asked.
 
One answer would be to look at how Silicon Valley itself became a byword for innovation. For O’Mara, it resulted from a confluence of three things: available resources, an attractive location, and strongly autonomous institutions of learning that were willing to work in close partnership with industry. Because Silicon Valley still has all three, she suggested, its diverse array of educational institutions can be encouraged to reorient their missions towards increasing educational equity in order to meet the area’s need for a highly educated populace.
 
Questions from the floor began with Stevens asking the panel to reflect on the degree to which Bay Area businesses can simply hire new employees from beyond the region and even abroad, and therefore ignore the needs of local residents. 
 
“You can think of the people living here as assets or liabilities, and from a purely economic standpoint, if you have liabilities, they’re going to drag you down,” Randolph responded. “So I think there’s a clear need to invest capital in people here. We want everyone to be able to contribute and compete to their maximum ability, but we also want to keep attracting people with above average education to the area from elsewhere in the world.” 
 
Audience members also asked whether new developments in online education could help extend opportunities for community college students (the panel agreed they could, although 30% of students at Foothill College already take online classes and students need support services to go with the courses, which are less easy to scale), and how we can help students afford to live in the area while studying (ideas included improved regional planning, and helping students pay for public transport and study more from home). 
 
Should universities be thinking differently about how they create value for students, faculty, and their community, wondered Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, John Mitchell. In response, Kirst suggested that the California State University campuses, which educate the bulk of four year students in the state, need to be more flexible in responding to demand, as do its community colleges, which at present take several years to get new programs running. In addition, said O’Mara, Stanford could follow Frederick Terman’s lead in reframing what is of value for a university to be doing, helping us rethink what “creating value” actually means to include some of the softer skills that aren’t included in the current STEM- and finance-centric definition of the term.
 
The discussion closed by exploring how we can to return to the notion of a college education as a public good, what can be done to get local technology companies to hire more local minority students, and the degree to which income inequality is really the heart of the challenge facing the Bay Area. 
 
Educational institutions can do a lot to remake themselves, said O’Mara. But they can also take a lead in educating the region’s students as citizens, who can then act on behalf of the greater good as voters. “That is the social good of the university,” she suggested. “So we need to think about how can higher ed. create both value and values, and help change the conversation.”