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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Thursday, January 18, 2018
Jerry Brown's terms as governor have been bad for CSU and UC funding.   The doubling of tuition revenues has not actually made up for the state cuts followed by small annual increases. In the UC case, campuses also need to find another $700 million a year for pension costs they didn't have ten years ago, and additional money for buildings that the state doesn't build anymore.  For the math behind our Lost Decade, see the last six paragraphs of "A Faculty Overview of the UC Budget--Tenth Anniversary Edition."

Last week, Brown gave CSU and UC even less than the inadequate 4% the systems thought they were getting, namely, 3%, which, subtracting one-time money comes to 2.1%, i.e. to the rate of consumer price inflation.  The governor also does not propose a tuition increase.  The two systems have 33 campuses between them, and Brown proposes that the structural problems and everyday squeezes at all 33 will remain in place.

Why does the governor and most of the Democratic establishment think UC and CSU can do more with less, and that state cuts don't hurt quality?  Brown offered a kind of explanation (thanks to Cloudminder for the transcript).
It is enough. You're getting three percent more and that's it. They're not gonna get anymore. And they've got to manage. I think they need a little more scrutiny over how they are spending things. It's just because the University is a good they say 'we've got to have more good' -but if you have too much good it -in certain circumstances - -it becomes a bad. So they're gonna have to live within their means. And what will happen here is when the next recession they'll have to put everything in reverse and lay people off and raise tuition and that's not a good thing. So, they've got to lower the cost structure and there are tools to do that and they need to step up and more creatively engage in the process of making education more affordable.
Brown posits as always that any quality problems are the result of bad UC and CSU management. This is a axiom for him that he never questions.  He has always thought that the state's public universities spend too much money on administration and executive salaries (especially UC). He is again saying they should get all of their new teaching and research money by cutting there.  This is a view he has held since around 1975.  There is truth to the story of administrative bloat, but perversely much of it is caused by the cuts themselves, since they force campuses to staff up to pursue "alternative revenue streams."  (I explain how this works in the The Great Mistake, Stage 2.)

Second, Brown categorically assumes that money can be saved by shifting much face-to-face instruction to online.  Last year,  he and California Community Colleges (CCC) chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, whom Brown had also appointed to the UC Board of Regents, announced a fully online CCC degree program called the Flex Learning Option for Workers (FLOW).  His budget proposes that this become a new 'online campus' for the community colleges.  The idea is similar to what then-dean of Berkeley Law (and Yudof consigliere) Chris Edley suggested for UC almost ten years ago - an 11th campus that would be all online.  The background assumption has remained the same: ed-tech has moved the cost-quality curve, so online college is "better faster cheaper" than face-to-face--both better and cheaper at the same time.

Brown has long been a true believer in online (see Toby Higbie, "The Governor's Thinking has Become Very Uptight").  But by the end of 2013, the MOOC-wave had crashed on revelations that it was neither better nor cheaper.  The famous Brown-brokered deal between Udacity and San Jose State was suspended after an NSF-based study showed Udacity's online courses actually reduced remedial ed outcomes, prompting Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun to call it a lousy product.  In addition, those of us who tried to find cost savings were unable to.  Georgia Tech's online Masters-Udacity's other flagship--continues to run with multi-million dollar subsidies from AT&T.  (See also the ambiguities of the University of Florida's online programs.) In short, online had not suspended the rules of learning, in which you can always save money . . .  by cutting quality.  After 2013, MOOC companies retreated from their initial claim to be replacing college, instead offering professional retraining and credentialing.  (My retrenchment overview is here).

In focusing on adult re-trainers, Gov. Brown's current online proposal seems at first to follow the arc of retrenchment. But it comes with a renewed MOOC-style claim that online is "as good or better" than face-to-face.  George Skelton quotes CCC chancellor Oakley making a categorical assertion of the online program's value because they are directed at "social network kids." A further example appears in Teresa Watanabe's coverage in the Los Angeles Times.
Laura Hope, a California Community Colleges executive vice chancellor, said improved classes and tools for online orientation, counseling and tutoring have significantly narrowed the performance gap between online and traditional classes. Nearly two-thirds of online students completed their courses in 2015-16, compared with just over half a decade earlier. Over the same period, the percentage of students who completed traditional classes stayed roughly the same, at about 71%.
There is no doubt that distance learning is more convenient than campus courses, or that online courses can and should play a role for at least some students.  In Fall 2016, about 11% of CCC course units were taken in "distance education" (DE) format.  The proportion of students taking at least one online course per year (for credit or noncredit) has gone from 19.5% in 2011-12 (page 4) to around 33% five years later (based on the CCC Chancellor's Office's Distance Education Fact Sheet).

Convenience granted, the real question is educational: is online as "as good or better" than face-to-face, as good or better in a way that justifies using them to replace face-to-face?   CCC's own data analysis is now making this claim, summarized in this slide, which refers to "Success Rates" in all types of CCC courses for the past ten years.


In the email that accompanied this figure, a CCC official claimed it showed that online technology is on track to match the results of face-to-face.  So, via CCC, "better" is  back.  And "cheaper" (though unproven) never went away.

As it happens, Cameron Sublett and I are in the middle of writing papers based on his extensive analysis of exactly this CCC data.  Our topic is racial disparity in online courses.  Our overall question is, does moving students of color from face-to-face to online help or hurt their education?  

Cameron was able to reproduce the CCC figure with the data we've been been using all along. Following our past practice, he then disaggregated outcomes by type of course and by racial category. Here are two examples of face-to-face / online comparisons, using two types of course that are likely to resemble the "retraining" courses offered by the FLOW program.

Online continues to deliver a significant drop in success rates in basic skills courses. The convergence trend CCC claimed on aggregate is much weaker here.   In addition, online makes the racial disparity of in-person courses somewhat worse.  The success rates of "Underrepresented Minority Students," to use the standard classification, are poor. In addition, they are not improving, as CCC claims for the aggregated results.

One reasonable policy conclusion would be quite the opposite of Brown's and Oakley's--Black and Latinx "basic skills" students should never be placed in online courses.  White and Asian students should use them sparingly.

The second figure:

Success rates are generally higher in vocational courses.  This is true with online as well, where the convergence with in-person is more convincing.  Racial disparities remain, and remain larger than with in-person courses.  Again, a system that is serving a minority-majority student population needs to be very careful with its use of these courses.

We'll have more to say about all this in further writing.  We have technical issues with the CCC's definition of "success" that may turn out to lower all of these rates, but we won't know that for a while.  We have issues with using completion as a proxy for learning.  But for the moment let's leave it at this:

(1) Online is valuable and important as a selective and supplemental approach to extending in-person higher ed. It helps students who cannot stop full time work or family care.   It is especially good at dealing with the repetition that is part of all learning.  This is an area where it has a clear advantage over human teachers, as language labs (and books!) have been proving for generations.

(2) State leaders are wrong to continue to push online as a categorial good.  This current push depends on aggregating data in a way that conceals how online disadvantages African American and Latinx students.   Online education is currently an engine of racial inequality, and no good higher ed policy can be created by ignoring that fact.

(3) Online should never be used to excuse state budgets that are too small to support the established features of educational quality.  These features include the presence of fully-qualified teachers working with classes that are small enough to allow individual feedback.  Online that approaches face-to-face quality is actually a "hybrid" that relies on structured personal contact. We know of no hybrid online courses that will save universities money.  States should never budget by assuming the opposite.

In short, university officials, including faculty senates, should loudly oppose officials who let online reinforce the color line.  The FLOW program should restart the discussion about the higher ed practices and investments that would actually reduce racial disparities in attainment, rather than cover them up.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Tuesday, January 9, 2018
In December I took a break from blogging about universities to write a set of overdue papers. That was interrupted by December's Thomas Fire, which destroyed houses in Ventura County, including at least one UCSB faculty member's, and threatened at several points to burn down Montecito and Santa Barbara as well.   Thomas wound up as the largest fire in California history, but not the most destructive or deadly.  That last part was entirely because of the powers of the public service known as fire protection.

I was traveling when the fire headed off west from Ventura County and entered Santa Barbara County.  I obsessively watched live KEYT news coverage and the daily 4 pm meetings, while at other times Facebook messaging the TV station when their burn map wasn't updating properly or they misidentified a canyon I recognized.   My mother and youngest brother also live in the City of Santa Barbara; both were born and raised in Los Angeles; she has been through about 20 wildfires, and has been evacuated in both LA and SB at least 6 times.  At one point on December 16th (the date of the photo above), I called her to say, "the new mandatory evacuation zone boundary is your street!"  She said, "oh, that's the other side of the street."  "Mom!"  I replied.  "Well," she said, "my side is voluntary. I'm fine."  Later on a deputy who disagreed came knocking on her door, and she wound up flying north to stay with her sister for the next 10 days.

I couldn't keep myself from comparing fire fighting and higher education during the community meetings.  Every day, at least a dozen people representing different agencies spoke in an high school auditorium to anyone who wanted to show up.  This included officials from Cal Fire, which I understood to be the lead coordinator of the many agencies involved in the effort, as well as the county sheriff, the local highway patrol captain, the US forestry service, county health, county air quality, animal rescue, city and county schools, the county fire battalion chief, various spokespeople from one or more of the many fire agencies from outside the county, and someone just back from emergency work in Puerto Rico.  Each afternoon they described the efforts of what became 8100 firefighters working out of at least 2 base camps, hundreds of engine units, dozens of helicopters, a Boeing and an Airbus bombing the inaccessible slopes with retardant, and the invisible logistics, communication and management personnel along with the folks staffing the evacuation center at UCSB.

The first days laid out the underlying conditions--seven years of drought was now coupled with record low humidity to make the hillsides ready to burn even when the wind dropped, which it did not do reliably.   Every day's meeting updated the public on the evolving strategy, which in a sentence was to use bulldozed fire breaks and water drops and hand crews to push the fire towards the previous burns that Santa Barbara County has in abundance.  New fuels don't burn as well as old fuels--battalion chiefs apparently don't see trees and brush, just variations of fuels.  There were maps and plenty of repetition, especially from the police who wanted people to be patient with the blocked access and crowd control in the evacuated areas.  The updates seemed to me to be relatively unvarnished.  The tone at least was far removed from the PR messaging that has taken over public communications these days. It stayed rooted in a common problem that the fire agencies were trying to solve with the community.   If the first round description of the day's strategy was a bit too technical, the details were unfolded in questions and answers that went on as long as the audience was willing to stay via direct access to the officials in the room.

These fire meetings were a model of public engagement that I wish universities would use.  The problems we address have a more distant horizon, but that's the only difference.

There's another issue raised by fire protection.  Markets and fees were not involved.  What was not happening was the allocation of this public service according to ability to pay.  Protection was available to everyone equally on the basis of general provision through taxation.  This was true even though private property was at stake--our excuse for charging tuition--such that every homeowner experienced a private market gain (a non-loss) when her house didn't burn down.

You don't have to imagine how the critique of "free firefighting" would sound-- you hear it all the time with universities.  "Fire protection does have some benefit to the national forest, but most of the benefit is to private property owners. Because public fire funding is expensive and lacks market discipline, we are cutting the funding and the basic service, so you are eligible for one free fire department call to your house every three years.  If you need more fire service, we have many plans to fit every budget.  Those with large private property benefits should buy Premier-level privatized firefighting--our 'Ivy League Plan' offers the fire protection equivalent of moving you from the bottom income quintile to the top one percent.  For those who need more service but cannot afford it, the state has set up a Fire Aid Program to consider your application on a case by case basis, where you will submit your family financial and fire need information via our 12-page FASFA form (Free Application for Fire Supplemental Aid) . .  ."

Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can allocate a public good through market mechanisms--the past four decades of public policy have shown this. The questions are why we would want to, and what we lose when we do.  Education and fire protection are public goods and yet, contrary to a truism of economics, they are "rivalous" (the engine at my house is therefore not at your house), and "excludable" (full quality fire protection may cost more than your community can pay).  Full quality firefighting depended on pulling dozens of crews from all over California and at least nine other states, on the strictly non-market basis of emergency service mutual aid.  

Society has tended to treat higher ed as a private good because it can, because it saves wealthy, powerful people money, and also because it has not grasped the cost.  The cost is clear in a fire: private fire protection would have

  1. a vast bureaucracy for internalizing returns by matching payments and services, which would have undermined Cal Fire-type managerial efficiencies; 
  2. increased overall fire danger by overprotecting wealthy and under-protecting poorer home owners, whose losses would be not only a greater relative catastrophe but would also send embers onto richer roofs; 
  3. prevented the massive general public firefighting effort on which the private firefighting is entirely parasitic;
  4. destroyed the wall-to-wall public support for an effort that was trying to help absolutely everybody at the same time.

The silver lining in the giant Thomas smoke cloud was the public good that isn't clotted with private interests.    We want our towns not to burn down because of global warming.  We want our kids to be smarter than we are, since that is our only hope.  In such cases, we finally don't want to use price signals to allocate according to individual ability to pay rather than to get the broadest allocation of the best possible quality for maximized general benefit.

The glory of civilization is not the market signal but almost its opposite--the intelligence that emerges in general collaboration as people figure things out together for the immediate and the long term.  The University of California, Cal State Channel Islands, Santa Barbara City College--not to mention Hollywood High Schoo--are all more like Cal Fire than they are like Genentech.  We need a rebuilt public funding model that reflects that basic fact.

Today the helicopters are back, this time chasing floods. Many thanks to all the public personnel who saved (most of) our bacon last year--including the state prisoners on the fire's front lines.  Welcome to 2018, and please keep your eyes wide open.