Photo illustration by Robbie Short for CALmatters
Photo illustration by Robbie Short for CALmatters

In summary

Like a burrito with too many jalapeños, Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent comments that higher education in California should be more like Chipotle—with a limited menu of courses—gave some people indigestion. Was there any truth to his argument?

Like a burrito with too many jalapeños, Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent comments that higher education in California should be more like Chipotle—with a limited menu of courses—gave some people indigestion.

University of California student leaders immediately clapped back with an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, then followed up by delivering burrito bowls to a state budget negotiation meeting. The real problem with public universities, they argued, wasn’t professors teaching obscure classes on “their pet little projects,” as Brown had said, but that state funding hasn’t kept pace with growing enrollment.

The announcement of a budget deal with sizable boosts for UC and California State University coffers took the focus off Brown’s comments. But all the hullabaloo had us wondering: Was there any truth to the idea that students weren’t graduating in four years because California’s colleges just have…too many courses?

Both UC and CSU say they don’t have data on the total number of unique courses at the universities, or how that’s changed over time.

But Cal State Los Angeles provost Lynn Mahoney told CALmatters that if anything, the number of courses on her campus has contracted in recent years as part of a streamlining of curriculum to ease students’ path to graduation.

The campus has shifted from quarters to semesters, restructured classes and encouraged departments to condense their catalogs, Mahoney said. There used to be 13 different ways to major in music. Now there are six.

“You want a curriculum that can easily be done in four years,” she said.

As for professors teaching too many specialized courses, Jennifer Eagan, president of the university’s faculty union, noted that students “vote with their feet” and classes with low enrollment get cut.

“People aren’t teaching Chaucer seminars with five students in them,” she said.

Still, Brown’s comments echo a national debate about which parts of a college education are essential to support during a time of declining state funding for public universities.

Earlier this year, the University of Wisconsin sent shock waves through the higher ed establishment when it proposed slashing 13 liberal arts majors—including English and political science—from one of its campuses in order to cope with a budget deficit.

California is no Wisconsin: The CSU’s 10-year academic plan calls for adding more than 100 new degree programs in such varied fields as Race and Resistance Studies and Big Data Analytics. (The CSU says campuses add new majors based on workforce needs.)

Yet some academics chafe at the idea of simplifying California’s public university curriculum at the very moment when low-income and first-generation students are enrolling in record numbers.

“My fear is that people don’t want high quality for today’s racially diverse and class-diverse millennial generation. They don’t want to pay for it,” said Christopher Newfield, a UC Santa Barbara English professor and author of The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them.

“It’s more warehousing (students) for four or six years rather than making sure we give them top-level skills.”

Adds Mahoney: “Nobody asks Stanford to be Chipotle. Is it fair that low-income and middle-class students get Chipotle and they get Ruth’s Chris Steak House?”

Ditching specialized, upper-division courses in order to free up faculty for general education could give more students access to “bottleneck” classes that they need to graduate, said Newfield, but at the cost of “dumbing down college rather than making it more accessible. You don’t get to the end of the curriculum.”

Brown spokesperson Brian Ferguson said the governor made his comments “in jest” but was pointing out that students need a clearer and simpler path to graduation than they currently have. He declined to mention any specific classes or types of courses that Brown would eliminate from his ideal menu.

But he pointed to CSU’s new online schedule planner and the California Community Colleges’ guided pathways program—which helps students pick the right courses to meet specific goals—as steps in the right direction.

Those efforts are important because the cost of education has skyrocketed, making students’ time on campus precious, said Lande Ajose, executive director of California Competes, a non-profit that advocates for creating more college graduates to meet the state’s economic needs.

“It was one thing to go sit at a college and think about big philosophical ideas when everything was affordable,” she said. “But when it becomes, ‘Do I go to college or do I buy a house?’ it does throw into bold relief this discussion about what is the purpose of higher education…and how long it takes you.”

“We want folks who are first-generation to go to college and to complete college,” she said. “And if it takes more guided pathways or a Chipotle-like menu to get those kids to complete, I’m willing to go in that direction.”

If Brown wants a first-hand perspective on how to help students graduate faster, he might ask David Gonzalez. Gonzalez, who wants to be a lawyer, attended five Los Angeles-area community colleges to get the prerequisites he needed to transfer to the University of California at Berkeley. He spent a little over three years getting his bachelor’s degree, is now working as a fellow in the California Senate and has advised other community college students through Upward Bound.

Adding more sections of required classes like English and statistics would help, Gonzalez says. But the most important factor, he says, is having a counselor who can give clear advice that relates to your specific situation.

That sounds less like fast food and more like reading a gourmet menu with a waiter by your side to recommend the best dishes. Too fancy for a public university? In a state that has prided itself on the quality of its higher education, maybe not.

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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Felicia Mello covers the state's economic divide. Prior to this role, she was editor for CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher...