Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Cells, Classrooms, and State Disinvestment in Higher Ed

As you have probably seen, over the last couple of months there has been a series of reports, position papers and dubious arguments about the past and future of the Master Plan and higher education in California.  We will be trying to work through at least some of them to highlight crucial issues and criticize misplaced assumptions and arguments.  I want to start today with a brand new report from the California Budget Project entitled From State to Student.

From State to Student is an important restatement of Sacramento's lowered investment in higher education at both UC and CSU.  The report makes clear several crucial points:

  1. Although it is clear that there has been declining support for higher ed for decades, the conventional (and passivity inducing narrative) underestimates the importance of the last decade:  Indeed, since 2001-2002 general fund spending for higher ed--as a share of general income--has been roughly cut in half despite the growing numbers of enrolled students (3). In other words, these cuts were political choices, not economic necessities.  As we have pointed out on numerous occasions, they were driven by the politics of the Schwarzenegger administration, took shape in the Compact that UC signed onto willingly (see the Futures Report and Cuts Report), and were deepened before being partially reversed by Jerry Brown.  The state's economy has grown but spending by Sacramento on higher education has been cut.  This is a point that needs to be made more forcefully than simply noting the cuts.   
  2. Despite the drastic disinvestment, both UC and CSU remain importantly dependent on the state for its core instructional funding.  The CPB estimates that under the proposed 2014-2015 the general fund will provide 54.3% of CSU core funding (down from 80% in 1998-1999) and 48.7% of core funding at UC (down from 75% in 1998-1999) (5-7). These numbers, like similar LAO numbers, are calculated based on General Funding divided by student FTE, and so we might quibble with them and with some of the definitions of what constitutes "core educational functions."  But they should give people pause in accepting the common claims by some that the state is now a marginal partner to CSU and (especially) UC because of the size of their total budgets.  
  3. The CPB also usefully charts the changing funding fortunes of higher education and corrections.  As they remind us (4), there has been an effective reversal in the priorities placed on higher education and corrections since the early 1980s.  In 1980-81 2.9% of the General Fund was spent on corrections; in 2014-2015 the Governor proposes 9%.  In 1980-81, 9.6% of the General Fund was spent on higher education; in 2014-2015 the Governor proposes 5.1%. Actually the reversal is worse than the CPB indicates since Brown's General Fund budget does not include the spending being sent to counties for realignment.  This has allowed him to appear as if he is cutting back on correctional spending when he is not. 

The CPB also demonstrates that this is a penny-wise/pound-foolish approach.  As several earlier reports indicated, effective access to CSU and UC has shrunk; the percentage of eligible California high school graduates who attend one of the systems has declined (7). The state has shifted costs onto the backs of students and families.  And in shifting funding from higher education to corrections it has shifted from investing in a sector that contributes to economic growth and social and personal development to building up a sector that drains both.

But the report also makes clear that none of the positions on the table will enable California's higher education system to fulfill its public purposes.  Although Governor Brown may pat himself on the back for his proposed funding increases it remains the case that the CPB estimates that the state is contributing 2,671 fewer dollars per FTE at CSU than in 2006-07 and 5,495 fewer dollars per FTE at UC. But the fashionable claims that we (especially at UC) don't need the state and should start focusing elsewhere miss the enduring and crucial support given by state funds.  And the disparity between the state's economic needs, the continued demand for higher education, and the avowed public support for higher education on the one hand, and the choices made by Sacramento on the other, should give people pause before accepting the alleged "realist" position that state funding is simply gone for good.

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