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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

It's Only Money (Updated)

If you work at the University of California, your Office of the President has committed you to producing 200,000 additional degrees by 2030, on top of the one million degrees already expected.  This post is a plea to the hundreds of thousands of faculty, staff, and students who will implement this 20 percent increase.  It's a plea to analyze the material conditions this increase requires, and to work actively for the right ones.

Can this expansion really happen without creating degree-mill conditions, and making life even harder for more vulnerable students?  What new resources will it take to make 1.2 million degrees a great thing for students, for the state, and for UC research?  Materials for this week's Board of Regents meetings offer some clues.

The stakes are high because of the high cost of making unfulfillable promises about core social needs (health, education, housing, work).  Health care is Exhibit A: former Obama administration officials (like the Crooked Media crew) say they all saw the Affordable Care Act as a big step towards what many of them wanted but couldn't yet get from Congress, which was Medicare for All.  But the ACA's compromised design created widespread user disappointments.  These weakened political support both for the ACA and for Medicare for All, making it harder to protect the first and get the second.  Obama officials also spent a lot of time denying that they even wanted Medicare for All ("single payer" as it was often called), since they were afraid of the charges of socialized medicine that they of course got anyway, so they buried their core framing principle (call it equal access to a human right free of market allocation by ability to pay).  People did fight to keep their government backstop on health premiums, but ten years later Medicare for All is still a ways out of reach.

An analogy in higher ed is the effect of overcrowding on undergraduate satisfaction.   The University of California has been producing extra degrees by taking extra students, half or more without state payment, off and on for 15 years.  For the recent history, see the very useful Regents' item F11, Display 1. You might think this would earn UC budget chips it could cash in for state general funds later, but there's no evidence that this has ever happened. If anything, taking unfunded students teaches the state UC can make do with less money per student, and perhaps even zero.  This is a bad precedent for the extra 200,000 students to come.

UC campuses see overcrowding as a tacit and necessary revenue strategy: even those students who don't bring state money still pay tuition.  Item F11 notes statistical costs: "the number of students per ladder-rank and equivalent faculty member, which has grown from fewer than 25 in 2004-05 to more than 28 in 2017-18" (p 5).  Student to core staff ratios have also risen, from 11.5 in 2007-08 to 15.6 students per staff member ten years later.  Ratios of students to frontline staff are in my experience grossly higher. 15.6 may reflect the number of RAs whose payroll is handled by a research center budget officer.  A departmental academic advisor's ratio may be 200:1, 500:1 or 1200:1.

The "user" cost appears in survey data.
Compared to 2006,
  • students are much less likely to strongly agree with the statement,  "Knowing what I know now, I would still choose to enroll at my UC campus";
  • a declining percentage of students are able to get into their first-choice major; and
  • students are less likely to know at least one professor well enough to ask for a letter of recommendation.
Whoever wrote Item F11 chose fundamental issues very well.  To what extent does UC enrollment depend on ignorance of UC realities?  Choosing a major is a cornerstone of the U.S. higher ed system: how many UC students are forced into a second or third choice? (Do read Zach Bleemer on the cost of being forced out of a first choice major.)  Finally, and rudely, is contact time with professors so much greater at public universities than at online services?  UC compares itself to private university peers in terms of research quality and faculty salaries. These three items are key private college strengths that UC has for many years been unable to match.  

What new funding is UC requesting to redress these issues? It's the standard modest proposal: tuition increases beaten back to the rate of inflation (there's a cohort-based tuition plan that's getting student attention).  A 3-4 percentish increase in state funds.  Throw in some non-resident tuition increases and some other little stuff.  Given current baselines in state funds and tuition revenues (page 14),  that would mean annual combined increases in chunks of $300 million, one chunk per normal year.

Here's a picture of the background:

Instructional expenditures are 80 percent of what they were in 2000-01 (actually less than that, because capital costs, bond interest, and pension contributions now come out of state general funds; averages are also much higher than undergrads will experience in most majors; but never mind that here).  This is true even though net tuition has doubled in that time (and tripled since 1990).  The state has also doubled the share of tuition that it picks up through Cal Grants, which is a political sore point.  Everybody's unhappy enough with the status quo to fail to give the university their strong support.

What would make people happy? Let's ballpark this.  Say average spending of 2000-01 levels would allow hiring more faculty and staff, easing restrictions on student access to faculty and to first-choice majors and upgrading the overall learning experience. We'd need another $5000 per student, all of it from the state to avoid tuition increases.  On 230,000 or so undergraduates, that means around $1.1 billion on top of inflation-covering increases we get right now.   If you did it in one year to avoid various complications, that would be a one-year increase of about 30 percent in general funding, or ten times the typical increase of recent years.

And if we need to produce 200,000 extra degrees, that's an additional 20,000 per year each year.  Funding another 20,000 students at the full cost of $25,000 means another $500 million on top of our $1.1 billion.   These are crude, round numbers, but they are in the ballpark of the real costs of doing the better quality at the bigger scale to which UCOP has in fact committed us.

It's hard for us to imagine the state stepping up like this.  That thought turns the gaze to tuition, which was the regents' answer (7-10 percent annual tuition increases were in the 2005 Compact with the state) until Jerry Brown shut it down.  It's hard not to go to tuition when it's the solution built into the  political and economic ideology of America.  But the UCOP materials show why tuition hikes can't happen either.

Here's a graphic from the Special Committee on Basic Needs. It shows total cost of attending a UC as a bit over $35,000 a year, broken down by sources of funding.
A lot of grant money is being spent, and yet the dire truth is the dark grey band hovering over every income level.  Every student, including the poorest, has to come up with close to $10,000 of $35,000 of total cost.  If your family makes $25,000 a year, you get a Cal Grant, a Pell Grant, and a UC Grant, and you still need to borrow or earn $10,000.  This is a key reason why the "high tuition/ high aid" model isn't sustainable. (See Stage 5 in The Great Mistake for details, or this post, written back when the claim that "high aid" induced shortfalls for poor students caused angry cognitive dissonance).

It's a key reason why UC's business model has created conditions for student non-success.   Students cover the $10,000 (plus also, in many or most cases, much of the Expected Family Contribution), by working too much, living in bad housing or no housing, and not eating enough. One of my colleagues reports that at UC Santa Barbara, a relatively affluent UC, 48 percent of our undergraduates and 31 percent of our graduate students are food insecure.

Student work helps add to time to degree, which conflicts with UCOP's degree plans.  Hunger and homelessness conflict with fundamental ethical principles and also with degree plans.   All three can be fixed with money: buying out the "student work and loan" portion for all undergrads would cost over $2 billion.  Doing it for the nearly half of UC undergrads that are Pell eligible would cost over $1 billion.

Unfortunately the Basic Needs recommendations (page 5-7) are about everything except money. They won't make any real difference.  The Berkeley Faculty Association has called out the most clueless--the "financial wellness programs" under the recommendation for "Improving Financial Literacy."  To suggest that low- or middle-income students can't easily find another $10,000 because they don't understand credit card interest is absurd and offensive.  If you are interested in that sort of thing, read the Basic Needs minutes for July 16th.  There's a lot of fuss starting on page 8 about the funding for the study of the issue and for some programs: the total seems to be about $15 million.  It's less than 0.5 percent of UC tuition revenues, which suggests an equally minuscule commitment to material solutions to the problem.

I know my tenure-track colleagues have mostly given up on the state.  Most of us have hunkered down until tuition hikes and non-resident students start flowing again.  We are more involved than ever in local revenue prospects like fundraising and special fee master's programs (or SSPs/SSDPs).  I don't think it's ethical to give up--we are already too complicit with the suffering of too many students. I also don't think it's feasible to give up--ten years after the financial crisis we still have no fiscal exit. It's not unlike health care, where staying in half-way ACA limbo forces our friends and neighbors to come up with $10,000 or $20,000 a month to alleviate immediate misery. None of this is necessary.  Fixing UC, CSU and the CCs would cost $66 per median taxpayer per year.  It's a choice between suffering and spending our common money.

UPDATE (September 21) The Regents Finance and Strategies Committee discussion on September 18th included this chart (at around 2'14").  UCOP's David Alcocer nicely explains to Regent Lark  that the figures are cumulative and reflect permanent revenues.  The way to get $20 million in permanent revenues is through an endowment 20 times that large (that yields 5% returns per year), is with a $400 million endowment.  I'd hasten to add what the regents are expected to infer--that fundraising is a very hard and inefficient way to generate large permanent revenue streams. 


I esp "chunks" of additional money per year to be $300 million (state and tuition), but it's closer to $250 million here.

Also worth pondering is Regent Cohen's remarks at 2'24" that rejects UCOP's data showing per-student funding has fallen.  He first says Cal Grant money was left out, and when he's corrected on that, he doesn't like picking 2000-01 as a baseline, claiming that was unsustainable.  He also claims that the lower per-student spending is the effect of "efficiencies," which he states are being disregarded by Display 3 (above).  Cohen was Jerry Brown's director of finance, and seems to believe that no cuts were made to educational operations because all reductions were efficiencies.   He of course offers no evidence for this, and there isn't any. The UCOP representatives don't correct Cohen's assertion, and it may be that this disastrous misreading of UC campus budgeting isn't unique to him on the board.

Cohen's interpretation is one that UCOP and also the Senate should correct head-on, based on its deep experience with what has actually happened on the campuses over the past ten years, to say nothing of the effects of previous cut cycles.

New Mexico pioneers free college
Previously on Newsom and UC budgets
Photo credit



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