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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rethinking the UC Future (1): the UCOF Report's Impacts on Students

The short, special Regents meeting on Monday, December 13 will consider pension changes and the ratification of the recommendations of the Commission on the Future. Most commentators have found the Report uninspiring. The San Francisco Chronicle focused on elements that will reduce services to and contact with in-state students (more out-of-state students, on-line courses, and three-year degrees).

There's more to the Report that this, but California is in the midst of a deep crisis in which its political and business leaders adhere to a world view that makes real solutions impossible.  This bipartisan view is now taking austerity to be the way forward, although it is destroying the chance to renew public infrastructure and is starting the abandonment of a generation of young people.   The UCOF Report needed to create a context that would give the public a reason to change the framework of political debate.

Here are five sample steps in a purely instrumental version that could be developed much further. I deliberately omit all of the higher and deeper things universities do, like solving social and culture problems ignored by technology, or like inventing new, more humane philosophies.

  • Economic recovery and renewal depends on high levels of educational attainment. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz's remarkable economic history showed strong causal ties between U.S. early educational development and economic success: the U.S. was far ahead of European rivals in high school graduation rates by 1940 and developed a similar lead over virtually every other country in college graduation rates in the thirty years after World War II (Goldin and Katz).
  • But we have an educational attainment emergency. The US has completely lost its educational lead.  For the first time in its history, younger people are less educated than their baby-boom parents (National Center; College Board, figures 1-4). The American proportion of students starting college who actually finish is now 56%, or 29th of the 30 OCED countries (Bowen et al. 2009, p.4). California, one of the world’s wealthiest places, has seen one of the world’s most astonishing declines in college achievement. The state’s continuation rate fell from 66 percent to 44 percent in just eight years (1996–2004). California’s rank among states in investment in higher education declined during the same period from fifth to forty-seventh.  The state has cut its investment in higher education by close to 50 percent since 1980, forcing tuition increases like the 60 percent rise at the University of California from 2004 to 2008, which was followed by a 32 percent rise between 2009 and 2011.
  • The 50-60% reduction in public funding for California's universities coincided with this decline, and also caused it.  Contrary to popular myth, replacing public with private money reduces educational access and the quality of the result.  I will say more about this below, when I discuss Recommendation 7 in the UCOF Report.
  • More egalitarian societies are more efficient and have higher educational attainment. This is a longer argument, but the circumstantial evidence is clear: the inequality boom has coincided with educational decline at every level.
  • Renewed public purposes will allow a more efficient and attractive University of California.  A redesigned and more effective UC, one closer to its core public and scholarly missions, is TBD at a later date.
The public is ready to hear this kind of a sequence -- and to do something about it. For example, the Public Policy Institute of California recently found that three-fourths of Californians think higher education funding is inadequate.   But the University of California has been having a hard time making the most of its actual popularity with Californians.  It is torn between elitism and egalitarianism. The genius of the Master Plan was to have it both ways, but UC's policy frameworks and PR reflect the anti-egalitarian world view I mentioned at the start, although without actually wanting the social stratification that results. This means that UC's outreach and social missions are unconvincing to a broader public that is nonetheless waiting to be brought back in.

Where does the flagship UC Future report fit into this?

The Commission report does say clearly that if things stay the same, funding shortfalls will get worse, and so will educational outcomes. If  UC stopped admitting qualified students for which the state doesn't actually pay, it would annually lose 46,000 students by 2020.  "Even if resources were sufficient to cover the costs of instruction for 46,000 more students a decade from now, UC does not have the classrooms, offices, laboratories, housing and other physical capacity to accommodate these students."(9)

But the public needs inspiration and vision if it is to come forward with these resources.  What it has here are 20 Recommendations. I will reorder these so that their interconnection can be more easily seen, and so we can better assess their direction.

I. Faster and Simpler B.A. degrees

Recommendations 2, 3 and 5: improve the pathways for California community college (CCC) students to transfer to UC; use an existing website (ASSIST) to do this; reaffirm Master Plan targets for freshmen and transfers.   This reaffirms a long tradition and important educational project in California higher education.  There's nothing new in these recommendations, not even the unstated hope that better CCC-UC links would allow UC to push more lower division undergraduate teaching onto the equally underfunded CCC system -- this has been attempted by many campuses in each cutting cycle, starting with 1992-95.

But the consequence of success here would be to increase UC's undergraduate student population, which will make underfunding worse.  The response to this is "more students but for less time."

Recommendations 1 and 4: Adopt Strategies for Reducing Time-to-Degree (10), and do this in part by strengthening the academic program review process.  There is only one new element here - the proposal for a formalized three-year degree option.  As for the rest, the simplification of requirements and scheduling has always been a goal of departments and campuses.  Examples are abundant, and include the enforcement of maximum unit limits for students after which both financial aid and in-state tuition levels may be removed, a fifteen-year effort on the Santa Barbara campus to increase use of unpopular teaching times (e.g. Friday afternoons), and the repeated streamlining of requirements such as the replacement of author-specific requirements in literature departments with surveys. All sorts of boring improvements have been happening during 20 years of cuts.   It should be noted that the most inflexible and lengthy major requirements cluster in science and engineering,  where the kind of dilution that English has performed may also require changes in professional organizations' accreditation standards, which are unlikely.

As for the three-year degree, the report notes that this would be appropriate for a small minority of students. "if only 5-10 percent of UC undergraduate students graduate one quarter/semester earlier, it would free up 2,000 to 4,000 undergraduate spaces per year, and thus improve access to UC" (10). The goal is not a more intense and educationally effective program but budgetary savings, and these will be small.

There are other issues here.  First, the report's authors do not seem aware of the number of undergraduates who already seek 3-year degrees in practice.  They combine AP credits from high school with summer school and already-reduced course requirements to get out in under four years.  How many students now do this? If this is currently a 5-10 or 15% practice, has UC already found the vast majority of students able or willing to leave early, suggesting the 5-10% estimate of new savings to be too high?

Secondly, students complain about delays due to courses that are cancelled or reduced in frequency due to budget cuts, not about excessive requirements.  (I base this statement on individual advising sessions this fall with over 150 students from all UC  campuses at the Education Abroad Program's three Study Centers in France.  Results in previous years have been similar.)  All departments want to offer enough courses to maintain normal progress. Few can now afford to do this.  The report cites UCLA's "Challenge 45" program seeking to reduce the requirements of all majors to 45 quarter units or 1 full-time year's worth of courses. This would be a more impressive program if we knew that lots of students are being held-up by unnecessary extra required courses, but we don't. We do know that students are being held up by canceled or infrequent classes.

Third, this is all headed in the wrong direction anyway: we need better educated students, not less educated ones.  The Report doesn't ask the educational question, so it gets the wrong answer.  And financially, the three recommendations are self-canceling, at best. 

II  Maintaining Student Access

Skipping to Recommendation 7, we get "Reffirrm Commitments to Undergraduate Financial Aid and Affordability." Here the Report shows an admirable interest in the ability of students of all incomes to afford their total cost of attendance and not just their tuition (15).  But the Report offers no means to affordability - the recommendation is to reaffirm a 1994 policy, not to find new money.

On this question of tuition and aid, higher education officials have suffered complete mental vapor-lock, and UC officials are no exception.  The obvious solution to the affordability crisis and debt boom is low tuition - capping it where it is now, and then lowering it in exchange for increased state contributions.  Instead, the section references grants, which don't cover the cost of tuition to say nothing of the cost of attendance, and doesn't have the guts to invoke high student debt, which is the way students have covered rising tuition in reality.

UCOP often touts its Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, and suggests that it is a one-stop access solution. The plan covers "educational and student services fees if you are a California resident whose family earns less than $70,000 a year ($80,000 beginning in 2011-12) and you qualify for financial aid." The Regents are told at virtually every one of their meetings that UC financial aid prevents annual tuition hikes -- the tripling of tuition in this decade -- from reducing access to UC.  This claim is woefully out of touch with the reality of students' lives: I spent an hour yesterday with a Berkeley senior who for financial reasons will be completing her Berkeley degree at a community college near her parents' house.

This claim is equally out of touch with the professional literature on the subject.  For an example, read chapters 8 and 9 of William G. Bowen et al.'s important statistical analysis of a unique data set in Crossing the Finish Line. They point out that the role of financial aid is not just to attract low- and medium-income students into college but to keep them there, and yet the complexities of the financial aid process mean that net prices increase for students as they continue through school (156).  Regardless of claims that aid increases along with tuition, the high-tuition model that has been the collective destination of public university leaders for decades has, in the past 10 years, resulted in the number of student borrowers growing at twice the rate of enrollment growth (153).  In addition, between 2000 and 2008, the value of outstanding private student loans nearly quadrupled (154).  Most importantly, and contrary to the popular myth that poor students have it made because of all the great free grants they get, students in the lowest-income quartile borrowed three times more money than students in the top in 1992-93, and were still borrowing more than the top income quintile when the authors ran the numbers for  2003-04.

When the authors add up the sources of funding available to students in the bottom quartile, including loans, they find a "gap"of about $3600 that is covered by unknown sources (171).  Middle and upper-income parents can meet these gaps by writing checks, selling something, borrowing on the side, etc. What do poor students do?  Move home, drop out "temporarily" -- the authors don't know, and neither does UCOF.  But one clear result is that the poorest students borrow only slightly less in dollar terms than middle-income students (158).  The percentage borrowing at the public universities the authors studied is 60% for low-income students, vs 48% and 23% for the top two quartiles (172).  As net cost rises from one year of college to the next, low-income students incured a debt of over $12,000 (and high-income of about $22,000).  These are obviously students that have overcome their  "loan aversion," which is greater for low income students, as they do not have the expectation of many more affluent students that a loan can indeed be repaid.  Such students can be deterred from entering college at all -- the loan figures come from students that entered and continued in college -- and can more easily be induced to drop out, or work more hours while in college, which lowers their GPAs (163). Finally, the complexity and opacity of the financial aid system keeps an unknown number of students from starting college, and many from finishing.  States with more expensive public flagships have lower graduation rates for low- and moderate-income students (190).

In the face of all such data, the refusal of the UC Commission to endorse low tuition and low increases will continue to undo UC's accessibility, not reinforce it.

We can see the perversity of the whole high-tuition system if we compare the effect of low UC fees to UC's current Blue and Gold high-tuition aid offer to students with family income under $80,000.  On each of these students, UC will be spending somewhere around $14,000 on educational and student service fees. This is money that it will collect from more affluent students, and that it will not be able to spend on educational activities.  On the other hand, under the low-fee model described in the Glantz-Hays report for Keep California's Promise, such a family would pay relatively affordable fees (about $4900) and UC would pay $0.00, so that it could put money it would otherwise spend on financial aid into teaching and research.   Where would the rest of the money come from?  More taxes - slightly more. The family that makes $80,000 per year would pay an additional sum to make up the state funding difference of $199.04. (The additional cost for the median family is $32 per year.)  Taxes are vastly more efficient than user fees of providing a common good.

The Commission should have used the Report to defend the restoration of public funding on the principle of the mutualization of costs: when a society shares a necessary cost like higher education, it increases usage and development at a very low per-person price.  it also avoids using price to discriminate against a large proportion of users.  Instead, the Commission has in effect supported a funding system in which an ever-increasing share of a given family's education dollars are handed over to the financial sector, leaving graduates and universities poorer.  The only winners in the current system are loan companies and their investors; the only losers in the low-tuition system are very high-income people, and they lose a sum that they can easily afford -- their personal equivalent of $32.

For most of the year of the Commission's life, the circle was going to be squared with on-line learning.  Recommendation 6 reads, "Continue Timely Exploration of Fully Online Instruction for Undergraduates, as well as for Self-Supporting Programs and in University Extension experience by providing students with a clearer and more well-defined path to achieving their degree objectives."  The Report retreats from the original idea, promoted by Berkeley law dean and presidential advisor Christopher Edley, for an "11th campus"  on line.  In order to address "questions related to quality, cost, and workload," the Report advocates "blended online courses that would include intensive use of social networking and a variety of technological tools and pedagogical strategies that would permit extensive interaction among students and faculty."  It appears that these courses are to be built on what the campuses are already doing in Extension and elsewhere, and quality upgrades and major expansion will cost money rather than generating it .  In brief, "blended," high-quality on-line programs that offer students the college-like availability of faculty, significant feedback, and frequent updating will not generate the profits associated with some of the for-profit "diploma mills" like Kaplan, Career Education Corporation and ITT Educational Services, Inc. In the short and medium-term, on-line ed will have almost no impact on either revenues or education.

So far, there is nothing in the Report that the public could rally around.  For students, it looks once again like paying more for less.


Catherine Liu said...

Having just read through the report this weekend, I am grateful to Chris for laying out a thorough and well thought out critique of UCOF's findings and recommendations. My first reaction is rather simple-minded. When UCOF was formed, our Chancellor told us that it was going to bold, that they were going to be willing to look at all ideas, and that nothing should be off the table. What they come up with, after all this rhetoric, is a technocratic austerity plan that looks at the Master Plan as a set of numbers to meet rather than as a set of commitments to the CA public good. Rather than simply refuting their ideas though, we should think boldlly of another vision of the UC going forward where the University becomes a place for social inequality is denounced rather than simply redressed. More on this soon.

Gerry Barnett said...

I don't see how it much matters how UC is themed--whether knowledge economy or social equality or better income by buying a degree. The problem is in management, in core issues like attainment and research outcomes and making public and reforming cross subsidies among instruction, department research, extramural research, and administrative programs, positions, and salaries.

For this, institutional "reputation" and "excellence" are now code words that mark the weakening rather than strengthening of the public university.

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