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Colleges compete for share of $50M
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — A community college working to put its students on the path to law school, a California State University branch offering a computer science degree that can be completed in three years, and a University of California campus using intensive summer classes to make sure transfer students hit the ground running.

Those are among the higher education institutions vying for a share of the $50 million Gov. Jerry Brown has pledged to reward schools with creative and cost-effective approaches to getting more students to earn degrees in less time.

Their ideas and more were presented at a forum in Sacramento on Monday where representatives from most of the 52 public colleges and universities that have applied for the California Awards for Innovation in Higher Education were given three minutes each to present their proposals lightning round-style to an audience of peers, business leaders, and elected officials. A seven-member committee chaired by Brown’s finance director is scheduled to name the winners of the competition on March 20.

“The prize is an innovation itself,” California Forward President James Mayer, whose government reform group hosted the higher education showcase, told the more than 100 attendees. “The awards were predicated on an important realization: public agencies throughout California, including colleges and universities, must find ways to reduce costs and improve results.”

To be eligible, campuses had to describe the steps they already are taking to increase the number of Californians who earn bachelor’s degrees within four years and to make it easier for students who start their studies at two-year colleges to finish at four-year universities. Winning proposals will need to show potential for statewide replication.

The initiatives under consideration for the one-time prize money cover a broad swath of college life, from course selection to career advising, and even target high school students for advance outreach and preparation. Many are geared toward creating new ways for students who start college with deficits in reading and math to get caught up without forcing them to take time- and motivation-sucking remedial classes, Mayer said.

Bonnie Irwin, the provost at California State University, Monterey Bay, described the program her campus hopes will be award-worthy. One is the three-year bachelor’s degree the school offers in computer science and information technology, which includes a summer math “boot camp,” a required internship and tutoring available five nights a week.

“We focus on the strengths of students instead of shortcomings,” Irwin said. “They succeed because of individual attention to individual students.”

Joel Powell, a political science professor at Solano Community College, said a law school preparation program that got underway at his campus and 23 other community colleges last year could help reduce the cost of college and the loan debt with which many students graduate by allowing them to start their studies at a lower-cost school and to avoid spending time taking classes that do not bring them closer to their goals.

University of California, San Diego’s entry in the awards competition is a new program designed to reduce the amount of time it takes students who transferred from a community college to complete their studies. Director of Academic Strategic Initiatives Alan Houston noted that its approach — such as a summer program for students hoping to major in science, engineering, technology or math — cost money up front but could yield savings in the long run if the campus produces more graduates in fewer semesters.

“There is no single solution, no single phenomenon that can change the trajectory of all students,” Houston said.

The governor has often criticized California’s public colleges and universities for what he sees as a failure to adapt to the 21st century, and the innovation awards represent an attempt to put state funds behind his position by giving schools an incentive to experiment.

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s committee on jobs, education and the workforce, said the state has fallen behind other parts of the country in embracing new models of teaching and learning and told conference participants said he hoped the contest would provide suggestions for “how Cali can get its groove back.”