By Wendy Brown
Most recent concern with increasing tuition at the University of California has focused on undergraduate access–how the middle class is being squeezed out of quality higher public education, taking on preposterous levels of debt, or both. And most recent concern with retaining excellence at UC has focused on faculty compensation issues–how to maintain the salaries, pensions and perks that will allow UC to compete with the best of the privates for top research faculty. The commonsense view at UCOP and in the upper echelons of the UC Senate links the two concerns this way: however lamentably, we must keep raising tuition in order to fund faculty compensation...because faculty hold the key to UC’s excellence, and competitive compensation holds the key to securing us. As Daniel Simmons put it back in 2010, “If faculty quality and prestige erode, UC becomes just another state university. We can fix access and affordability if the state decides to fund us, but if we fail to protect the faculty, we are not going to get them back.” (3)
This logic occludes the serious crisis for graduate programs produced by skyrocketing tuition, a crisis that exposes the folly of privatization strategies and that cannot be solved by intensifying them.
Most faculty at research universities care as much about working with excellent graduate students as they do about any other element of university life. First-rate graduate programs are crucial to faculty research, teaching, prestige and general satisfaction. Take them away and both new faculty recruitment and existing faculty retention will be severely challenged.
So what are the ingredients of the current crisis? Rapidly escalating tuition rates means rapidly rising costs of PhD programs. Competitive doctoral programs usually offer five-year funding packages to admittees--a combination of stipends, research and teaching assistant positions. These packages cover most tuition costs as well. So who pays the tuition? Whether it is funded “centrally” as was long the case, or “devolved” to departments, as contemporary neoliberal governance has done, and whether its source is the state, a grant or a gift, tuition is paid from funds that could be used (and in the past have been used) by the university for something else. Thus, today, the university faces the same problem in sustaining graduate students that middle class families face for undergraduates: it must pay for skyrocketing costs of graduate training, and, given shrinking revenues, it can less and less afford to do so.
Here are some rough numbers that make the point. In the 2000-01, when in-state tuition/fees were about $3400 and non-resident tuition/fees were $13,700, and when competitive fellowships were a bit lower than they are now, supporting a grad student who was a California resident cost approximately 21K annually and supporting one from Chile cost about 32K (This is the combined cost of tuition plus a fellowship, or tuition plus a GSI-ship or GSR-ship.) Today, with in-state tuition/fees at 15K and out-of-state tuition/fees at 30K, it costs approximately 36K/year to support the Californian and 51K/year to support the Chilean. If the UCOP-planned tuition increases occur over the next four years, in 2016-17, the cost would be over 42K/year for the California resident and over 55K (possibly as high as 60K) for the non-resident.
Thus, in 2000-01, for an entering graduate student cohort of fifteen, the cost of supporting a class of thirteen non-residents and two California residents for a year was approximately 458K. Today, that cohort costs approximately 735K and in 2016-17 it would be approximately 900K, almost twice what it was at the beginning of the century. On the other side of the ledger, allocations for graduate programs are shrinking, not growing. Indeed, part of the way that UC is managing budget cuts is by cutting funding to graduate programs.
The increase in graduate student cost and decrease in allocations for graduate student funding means that departments are now looking at admitting and enrolling cohorts of less than half the size of a decade ago. Moreover, they can no longer afford non-U.S. students (who never become eligible for in-state tuition rates) and are eyeing affirmative action for Californians (who cost significantly less in their first year). The elimination of international students and growing preference for Californians presents the wonderful irony of departments trying to end-run the revenue-generating strategies of their own institution. (Neoliberal entrepreneurial strategies produce great numbers of such ironies.) But it also represents another serious blow to UC graduate programs on top of shrinking cohort size. While UC’s undergraduate mission should be aimed at Californians, strong Ph.D programs must attract and enroll the best students in the world–that is what secures their excellence and renown. But the opposite is happening in each case: UC seeks to enrich its coffers by decreasing the proportion of Californians in its undergraduate population while graduate programs aim to cheapen costs by favoring Californians and eliminating foreign students.
The effects of the crisis for graduate programs resulting from tuition increases are just beginning to be felt but departments are panicking as they take them in. Smaller and weaker graduate student cohorts will have multiple ramifications: Faculty will have fewer graduate students to mentor, do less graduate teaching and work with less talented students with lower placement prospects. This will drive away the best UC faculty and make it difficult to recruit the best new faculty talent. Together these effects will lead to drops in department rankings which will further dampen interest in UC by superlative faculty and applicants to Ph.D programs. At this point you can see the whole downward spiral–there goes the quality that UCOP and the UC Senate were trying to preserve. Undergraduate education too, will be effected by declining quantity and quality of graduate student instruction, which will surely lead some excellent would-be UC undergraduates to go elsewhere for their education.
Of course, some might argue that the shrinking market for Ph.Ds warrants a compression of graduate programs. But the demand for Ph.Ds is probably changing more than it is shrinking. Certainly faculty research positions in the letters and science will constrict, but massive numbers of Ph.Ds will be needed to staff the on-line and other factory-style undergraduate courses looming on the horizon. The soon-to-be lower-ranked UC graduate programs would be just the right source for such workers.
What a sad end to a century in which some of the best graduate programs in the world were germinated and harbored at public institutions. Indeed, this story amplifies a prediction offered by Frank Donoghue that the chasm between the elite privates and degraded publics is likely to grow ever wider until the two kinds of institutions shed most traces of kinship. As Donoghue tells it in The Last Professors, at the undergraduate level, the elites will continue to cultivate the future 1% in the liberal arts while the “publics” will increasingly offer technical and professional training to working and middle class students who will be “job-ready,” if not especially broadly or deeply educated, when they graduate. What is the corollary at the graduate level? The elite privates will train future research faculty while the publics train adjuncts and on-line course staff.
To conclude where I began: In raising tuition to generate revenue for faculty compensation, market-oriented UC leaders have assumed that such compensation is the most significant issue in sustaining UC excellence through retaining excellent faculty, a rationale that comes from the private sector. The result has been cannibalization of features of the institution that will drive the best faculty into the arms of the privates regardless of what UC pays them, and also drive down the research and education quality of the institution as a whole.
The impending catastrophe for UC graduate programs is but one moment of an institution imperiled rather than protected when submitted to market metrics. It reveals the folly and destructiveness, not only the anti-egalitarianism, of privatizing a great public university system.
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