I've argued that 2009 brought potentially epochal shifts in perception about higher education, both in California and elsewhere. The first two public lessons of the year were that major cuts in funding are bad for educational quality, and that students will not accept the usual (and sadly incomplete) attempt to cover these cuts, which is higher fees.
The third lesson was that good public universities have and will continue to depend on good public funding. Public funding is also extremely efficient. A study at Keep California's Promise showed that "good public funding" will cost the median California taxpayer a total of 32 additional dollars per year. I can't understand why the sheer affordability of a restabilized high-quality public university has not been picked up and broadcast everywhere by UCOP, the Regents, and the Governor's office.
The high cost of not defending public funding has been demonstrated yet again in a new poll by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (ppt version).
In the poll, more people that ever think that a college education is essential for a person to be successful in today's work world. This percentage has nearly doubled to 55% in the last ten years - a truly meteoric rise. On the other hand, the percentage of those who think that "the vast majority of qualified, motivated students have opportunity to attend college" has fallen from 45% to 29% over the same period. Nearly three quarters of Americans believe that high college costs prevent more than just some qualified, motivated students from attending college.
If high tuition is a problem for the public, so is its supposedly redemptive twin, "high aid." Although they realize that there are many aid programs for college students, "more than 8 out of 10 Americans believe that students have to borrow too much to pay for their education."
This puts higher ed up a box canyon that we now know pretty well. College completion is essential, but college is too expensive for most students. At the same time, students and their families are getting tired of borrowing to pay ever rising costs.
Here's where the third lesson comes in: the only way to achieve the "master plan"'s desired combination of high quality and mass access is to restore tax-based public funding to appropriate levels. The urgency of getting there is hard to overstate - prosperity, democracy, racial equality, social integration, energy decarbonization, among other things will all be greatly assisted by reversing the current contraction of higher education completion. But the essential element in all this - public funding - does not currently enjoy majority public support. By a 54 to 40 majority, respondents felt that "colleges could spend less and still maintain a high-quality education."
40% is a lot better than nothing - the glass is almost half-full. So how do we get to 60% or 70% in favor?
The most obvious method is budget transparency, or clear accountability. How else can higher ed convince skeptics that it isn't wasting the money it already has? UCOP has a long way to go on this. State Sen. Leland Yee just got the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to request -- unanimously -- an audit of UC's use of public funds. (Note that this audit is distinct from Sen. Yee's 2009 proposal to reduce UC's constitutional independence from the legislature.) UCOP is likely to stonewall, judging from past practice as well as recent statements, such as CFO Peter Taylor's bizarre claim that the audit CUCFA requested of the fund sources of bond repayments rested on a misinformation campaign that was the enemy of excellence and progress. UC should request legislative funding for the significant additional costs of such an audit, but to refuse it would compound a continuing strategic mistake that I will return to below.
The second way to increase support for public funding is to stop raising privately-paid tuition. The funding model of the last three decades has assumed tuition increases of 2-4x the consumer price index year in year out, rain or shine, boom or bust. Families paying ever-growing tuition for education don't want to pay higher taxes for education. They see that as the kind of "double taxation" that George W. Bush made a household word. At the same time, the general public can't see how an institution that increases its charges 7-10% a year, like UC under the Compact, could possibly be hurting for money. At least two generations of higher ed leaders have helped shaft the case for public funding with their annual recourse to tuition hikes. Foregoing increases in a crisis will be extremely painful, but we have to bite the bullet on this one.
The third way to increase support for public funding is to reconnect university research to burning social needs. The PPHE poll asked a very interesting question that got at the heart of this deficiency.
Many academics have been concerned about the weakening of the university's public mission under financial temptation and threat alike. This poll finds a real effect: by nearly 2:1, respondents think that universities don't have a public mission -- at least one that is stronger than the desire to make money. Why would this 2/3rds of the public ever support give universities, which they see as oriented towards private gain, a bigger piece of hard-earned public funds?
The respondent's answers constitute an indictment of the high-tuition / high-aid model that elite private universities made the American standard, and that public university leaders have sought to imitate. University leaders have spent decades trying to prove their loyalty to the values and practices of the business and donor communities. The result has been real success in private fundraising, but increasingly disastrous costs to public funding. The whole university community is going to have to pull together on this, including the researchers and program heads who have done extremely well with the systems of private side funding on a public infrastructure base.
Here's where we get to my beef with Bob Samuels. In a recent piece on the Huffington Post, Bob calls quite rightly for budgetary transparency, so that "parents, students, and taxpayers should know where their money is actually going, and everyone should be concerned about the quality of undergraduate education." But he frames his discussion with the incorrect statement that "it does not matter how much money these institutions get from the government or even from tuition-paying parents and students; what matters is how universities and colleges spend their money." In fact, both things matter enormously - fair and effective expenditures, but also publicly-supported revenues. I have written to Bob in the past to express my dismay at this binary approach, and I don't understand either the analytical or the tactical basis for continuing it.
The same must be said for the way Bob in this piece sets up teaching and research in opposition to each other. He writes, for example, "by making students and their parents pay for faculty research, the quality of education is reduced; for the simple truth is that the more professors are rewarded for their research, the less they often value teaching." This is an untrue generalization, and in the disciplines I know best there is a "promotion trap" that works in the opposite direction: tenured faculty spend so much time on teaching and university service that their research gets bogged down. Some of the most successful researchers I know are as driven to disseminate and explain their knowledge as they are to create it. The non-teaching public needs to understand that in the real world, discovery and communication, teaching and learning, are two sides of the same coin. Bob is himself a perfect example of this, being a teacher whose pedagogical virtues have been sung to me by some students we have shared, even as he is the author of several scholarly books, including a recent one on new media and critical theory, not to mention his long and impressive series of commentaries on higher education and UC.
The math in Bob's piece should, in my view, be used to make a somewhat different point than he does. He intends it to show that overall undergrads are getting the crumbs from the budgetary table. His methodology of one average salary and class sizes is bound to be misleading, and it is better to use the aggregate instructional expenditure calculations developed by Charles Schwartz that Bob cites. Schwartz's more intricate calculations lead him to the conclusion that "the final cost to UC for undergraduate education (2006-07) is between $6,711 and $7,311 per student," including academic support and related overhead expenditures. This is in contrast to UCOP's statements that instruction costs around $20,000 per year, which is consistent over several years (2006-07, 2007-08 slide 9, 2008-09).
I have several comments here. The first is that the UCOP Budget Office figure of $20,000 is instruction over all types of students, including doctoral candidates, M.B.A. students, and medical students. Medical students receive over $20,000 each in General Fund monies, and in 2008-09 received about $85,000 each in overall instructional expenses. The cost for undergraduates is much lower, and in my experience the Schwartz figures are reasonably close to what is spent on most but not all undergraduates - many receive substantially less, and others more, a topic I leave aside here.
The deeper question is whether this is a bad thing in itself. In fact it is not bad on its face. The money that goes to things other than undergraduate instruction goes toward creating the university as a whole. Undergraduates get many indirect benefits from research, even at professional schools to which they have no direct access. In economics these are called spillovers, and the value received by undergraduates from the university overall exceeds direct and indirect expenditures on instruction. This includes the advantages of being taught by active researchers like Bob Samuels, or helped by student service staff who have also worked in electrical engineering laboratories, and so on.
At the same time, there may be unjust underspending in these figures, just as there certainly is in staff salaries. I have expressed strong support for Bob Samuels, Charlie Schwartz, and other budget commentators for shedding light on what is spent on whom, and for trying to start a rational and open discussion of budgeting, cross-subsidies, and the financial governance of our shared institutions. We all need to continue this effort.
Pursuing justice and effectiveness in expenditures doesn't require telling the public that research at a research university undermines undergraduate education. Poor funding, declining facilities, understaffing, and overwork undermine education. To repeat what I said above, we are all going to have to pull together to give the public a clear explanation of how in reality research, including the cultural kind Bob and I practice, is a crucial public interest.
6 hours ago