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Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Public and Higher Education

by Michael Meranze

As we head into this week’s Regents meeting and the imminent increase of student fees, Andrew Dickson is right to draw attention to the political and funding implications of the recent PPI poll on higher education. The results, as he makes clear, are sobering. The public, at least as represented in the poll, thinks well of the Community Colleges, CSU, and UC, believes that higher education is important for the state, and is concerned about its future. But a strong majority is unwilling to pay higher taxes to help higher education overcome recent cuts and a sizeable minority thinks that if we simply used funds more effectively everything would be fine. Dickson emphasizes the difficulties inherent in these poll results. I want to point here in another direction. The poll indicates, I think, that while there is no real consensus on how to move ahead and that public opinion is contradictory, UCOP’s plans to rebuild UC on the basis of student fees is a self-defeating strategy. Not only will it prove economically insufficient but it will likely start a death spiral in state support. In the end, the University cannot survive that spiral—at least not as a public university of 10 strong campuses.

The long-term task we face is to stop UCOPs strategy of trying to shift university funding from the State to the students. That will not be an easy task. There seems to be no end in sight for the continuing and worsening budget news. While some cuts—especially to education—were limited by Federal stimulus money that money will run out by next year. The Governor and his allies are threatening even more substantial cuts not only to education but to those most in need of state funds. Mike Genest, Schwarzenegger’s outgoing finance director (and source of support for President Yudof’s mantra that the state is not a reliable partner) revealed that he looked into the possibility of California giving up statehood in order to become a federal territory.

Given the crises of the State budget, the PPI poll offers a series of sobering points. As Andrew Dickson reports, the Poll results show that 56% of the public is unwilling to raise taxes in support of higher education. This fact does have some ambiguity to it: 56% of Democrats are willing to raise taxes whereas 58% of independents and 74% of Republicans are not. Republican opposition I take to be hard opposition—after all low taxation is an article of faith for the California Republican Party. The question is whether the numbers could be changed for the Democrats and the Independents. In the short run the answer seems to be no. The recession has hit the state hard and people are reluctant to add to their own economic burdens. The significant lack of confidence in State leaders (the poll suggests that only 21% approve of Arnold’s handling of higher education and only 16% approve of the Legislature’s handling of the problem) probably increases the public’s reluctance to commit to further funding. Moreover, while a majority of the respondents believe that the University needs both additional funding and to use its funds more effectively, there is a sizeable minority (38%) who believe that the University could solve its problems simply by being more efficient. On the other hand, 70% of the respondent’s indicated that they thought that the budget cuts for higher education were a “big problem.”

This sort of contradiction, of course, is nothing new to California politics nor is it limited to higher education. Since at least the 1980s Californians have assumed that they could gain high quality public services without having to pay for them. Moreover, there has been widespread misinformation about the tax system (which is far more regressive than most admit) and about the alleged effectiveness and wisdom of California’s commitment to mass incarceration (which as even Andrew Dickson’s conclusion suggests is a too easily accepted political meme. The structure of State governing power after Proposition 13 was all but designed to make the State inefficient with the predictable result of loss of confidence. But the Great Recession has made these long-standing problems more severe and it does no good to ignore that.

But there are difficulties peculiar to our situation. The difficulties are easy to name: the Regents and UCOP are determined to switch our funding onto students and private sources and the Oakland-based Senate Leadership are unwilling to resist that process (indeed all indications are that they are active supporters). The Regents have refused suggestions that the fee increases have a sunset clause or that an audit be completed before imposing higher fees. The Gould Commission is pushing ahead with its plans to remake the University in a matter of months (and it doesn’t seem coincidental that Russell Gould and Christopher Edley were opposed to slowing down the process—after all that might allow more alternatives to appear).

On the other hand, the protests and objections from students, staff, and faculty and the challenges from local Senate committees do seem to be having an impact. New questions arise continually about the use of student fees and about the colleges’ possible subsidization of the professional schools. UCOP has been forced to respond more and more to the dissatisfaction of the campuses. And President Yudof’s indication, on the eve of the Regents meeting to discuss fee increases that he would seek $913M in additional funding from the State suggests that he too is feeling the public pressure against explicitly giving up on the State.

It is in this context that the contradictions of the PPI poll take on their greatest importance. It is true that 56% of the respondents were unwilling to pay more in taxes but 62% were “very concerned” and 27% were “somewhat concerned” about raising fees for students. At the same time 57% were “very concerned” and 29% were “somewhat concerned” about admitting fewer students due to the budget crisis with almost identical numbers for reducing classes. When asked if they were willing to raise student fees to make up for budget cuts 68% said no (although to be complete I should note that 67% were willing to have a sliding scale for fees). Even more striking, at least to me, is that when asked what was the most important problem facing higher education, 31% thought student costs and affordability and 26% thought the lack of state funding while only 2% pointed to the politics of professors and only another 2% pointed to teaching or instruction. Despite all the summer fears about the hostility to the University and the professorate, the public doesn’t seem all that worried.

These results suggest to me that the University will pursue UCOP’s present strategy at great risk to itself and to higher education. The public is not in favor of fee increases to compensate for budget cuts (which appears to be President Yudof’s plans). If fees continue to be raised it seems likely that the public will become more alienated from the higher education, they will turn their backs on the institutions, and we will begin a race to the bottom for state funding. Nor can the University continue to raise fees indefinitely if it hopes to retain students. Already there are signs that private colleges are gaining enrollments due to the rising costs and decreasing offerings at CSU and UC. Without romanticizing what UC has been in the past we can be assured that if the Regents and UCOP continue their present strategy UC will cease to be the world-renowned system that it is now. CSU is equally stressed: their applications are increasing dramatically as they are forced to cut back on admissions. CSU leaders have been more outspoken in opposition to these changes than have the UC Regents. But they cannot reverse this process alone.

We may not be able to stop the fee increases in the short term. But there are possibilities to reconnect with the public’s desire for an open and excellent public university system funded by the state. Kristin Peterson and Mary Furner have suggested a variety of strategies to engage the public. These will, admittedly, take time. Our internal challenges—most especially in stopping the Gould Commission’s rush to judgment—will remain. But despite the cautions that Andrew Dickson has raised there is a reservoir of commitment to public higher education in the state. Californians remain committed to their system of higher education, continue to think that college education matters, and continue to think that the state’s future is tied up with its universities and community colleges.

We are facing a new version of the battle of the books. But whereas earlier battles concerned the ancients and the moderns ours is somewhat different. The Governor, the Regents, UCOP and UCOF seem to think that the only books that matter are accountants’ books. The public knows better. But we need to offer clearer accounts of how higher education matters and propel UCOP into doing the same—and these accounts need to come from all parts of the University. If we are unable to do this then we, UC, CSI, the Community Colleges and the State will be the losers. And in that case, I doubt that even the winners will savor their victory.


Andrew Dickson said...

Great post! Thank you. You're exactly right, that simply increasing fees will move us (UC) into a role as "bad guys", without significantly damaging the public perception of the governor and legislature, already near rock bottom.

The current UCOP "request" for over $900M in state general funds (not to mention an additional $430 M in student fees) makes sense as a way of returning UC towards the approximate trajectory of the late "compact" (a still inadequate amount by comparison with "the good old days" -- see the "Futures Report").

However, the total amount requested from the state general funds for 2010-11 ($3.539 B) is, sadly, less than the amount that was requested a year ago for 2008-09 ($3.835 B).

As you note, there is clearly more involved than simply saying "Please sir, I want some more."

Catherine Liu said...

Great post, Michael, one of the best I've read so far analyzing the present crisis. I think that profs have to come out against the attacks on middle class californians...every time we suggest that the university will be less accessible, the budgetheads repeat that the poorest californians will pay no more than they are already...it's the middle class -- the ones who supported the tax revolt called Prop 13 who are being squeezed. This constituency has been left farther and farther behind economically
since 1972 -- this fact is well-documented. Can we have an economics teach-in for parents of UC and prospective UC students to show them the numbers?

Michael Meranze said...

Catherine--that would be a great idea. I guess the question would be whether to try to organize one with people that could be posted as video or if some sort of packet could be prepared that could be distributed to the various saving and action sites. What do ou think? Chris, any ideas?

And Andrew--thanks for those figures. Given how awful the compact has been it shows how far we need to go.

Karthick Ramakrishnan UCR said...

It is important to note that the short-term environment shaping this opinion is not only the recession, but also the fact that the only political ads up for the Governor's race so far are Whitman's spots denouncing wasteful government spending. There is also the skepticism about the various national bailouts. Unless Democrats get on the air soon with a vigorous message about the benefits of govt. spending, these polling patterns will continue.

Catherine Liu said...

I don't know what it will take to reframe the issues, but I don't think that on-line video will work. A packet of information made readily available to all the active groups will be useful, but we have to keep our focus on transforming the ways in which the public has been broken down by message machines targeting a bogeyman! If some one can summarize some of the great work Chris has done, put it in the context of Kevin Phillips and Paul Krugman, pretty mainstream economists, we can all pitch in to get this analysis into the hands of Californians.

Michael Meranze said...

Just to make Catherine's suggestion even more difficult I also think that we need to think of very concrete ways to point out what higher education (indeed all of education) actually does for people. There is a lot of "why do people need it except to pick up specific information" out there--which is the way they justify online stuff as simply proving needed information. But we need to think of ways to point out why different ways of thinking and different types of knowledge are important for society and people more generally.

Anonymous said...

I have two thoughts on the matter-

1. Overturn Prop 13. This regressive tax is perhaps the main reason for the budget crisis.

2. A $3000 increase in tuition to $10k/yr isn't very much. Students can and should take out loans to cover the difference. If a student is concerned that the extra $12k after 4 years will be insurmountable to pay back once they are employed, then that student should drop out or change majors. College should not be a tax-payer subsidized 4-year holding tank for people figuring out what to do with their lives.

Michael Meranze said...

Do you really want to belittle students' financial struggles that way? As a lot of studies have shown student indebtedness has increased dramatically over the last decade--for many this sort of increase may be the tipping point in their ability to attend college.

And should students be forced to choose their majors on the basis of what they owe? The problem is not "people figuring out what to do with their lives" but the fact that many career choices don't pay the big bucks. Should we discourage people from becoming teachers for instance?

I do agree about prop 13.

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