CFHE Statement on California Senate Bill 520


The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, a national grass-roots coalition of faculty and staff higher education organizations, is deeply concerned about California Senate Bill 520 and what it could mean, if adopted, for the future of public higher education in California.

A well-intended but misguided effort to restore access that has been lost as a result of slashed funding for California’s public colleges and universities, this bill would hand off up to 50 courses in California’s public colleges and universities to for-profit online education providers. 

It is rife with unintended consequences and would, if passed, take the state even further along the road toward dismantling its public higher education system.

For instance, the bill fatally undermines the central bulwark of quality in higher education—the role of faculty with disciplinary expertise in developing curricula, determining appropriate formats of instruction, and ensuring quality.  Handing off quality control to for-profit providers, whose express purpose is profit rather than the public good and whose track record on quality is widely acknowledged as spotty, puts the future of California’s public colleges and universities in grave jeopardy.

In requiring that these courses be offered online, the bill also takes a simplistic “one-size fits all” approach to higher education not supported by research on who does well in online education—and who does not.  Consequently, the bill could actually lower academic achievement for some students (particularly in key skills such as writing, math, and basic analysis), amplify the digital divide, and diminish opportunities for underrepresented groups to excel in higher education.

We urge the California legislature to rethink this bill and the mistaken assumptions underlying it.  If passed, SB 520 would set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the country. Selling off public higher education to for-profit “educational providers” cheats students and the public. Such moves would send even more public money to already highly-subsidized and low-performing companies, many of whom lack the credentials and oversight mechanisms of accredited colleges and universities.

Online classes and for-profit providers are a part of the current landscape in American higher education, but seeing either as a panacea is simply denial of the fundamental problem—the failure of California and most other states to adequately fund higher education.  And on the solution to that problem, we concur with a recent New York Times editorial that concluded, “To broaden access and preserve what is left of the public university, California lawmakers will need to change budget priorities that have been moving in the wrong direction for a long time.”