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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Will UCOP's Budget Plan Lower Undergraduate Quality?

The answer should be an obvious no, but UCOP prepared a document for the UC Regents meetings this week that points UC in that direction.

The document is background for a preliminary discussion of the UC budget for next year (2019-2020). It advocates another multi-year agreement with state government about general funding. The immediate context is Jerry Brown cutting this year's agreed increment from four to three percent (less than that net for various reasons), as well as the overall sub-par condition of the University, again facing a series of underfunded costs summarized on page 1.  New regents will not understand the regular state breaching of compacts with UC and CSU or overall state funding declines from this document. Our overview here would be more help.

The larger context is that UCOP has never found a storyline that has attracted the state's politicians into real reinvestment.  UC's general fund has been going up at about the rate of consumer inflation (which is generally below higher education inflation).  In recent years, the state has grossly underfunded new enrollments, as the budget document points out (3).  The de facto state theory has two parts: (1) UCOP cost claims are not credible enough to address; (2) UC undergraduates can be taught for an amount similar to that of community college students.

What narrative could dislodge this second assumption?  Facts on the ground suggest it can't be.  Cal State's Board of Trustees have discussed becoming an "all-transfer" university, on the theory that their state funding doesn't allow a full-scale lower-division program. UCOP took the deal of $5000 per new resident undergrad, and as far as the state knows nothing bad has happened.  In order to keep its nonresident tuition at current levels, UCOP also accepted the pressure to increase transfer students until they are one-third of new admits, and has been making progress.  This ratio has always been a Master Plan obligation, and in my long experience, transfer students are academically comparable to students who started at UCSB.  But assumption (2) remains: UC lower division education is about the same as community college, and additional money put into it is probably wasted.

The narrative that could justify more enrollment funding is that UC undergraduates need more, better learning than they are now getting, and will need further upgrades in the near future. Better learning produces both pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits.  As I noted last time, the value of universities is disproportionately non-pecuniary, so stressing only wage and workforce effects guarantees underfunding.  UC, Cal State, and the community college system all generate intellectual and sociocultural capabilities that help wage gains and job growth indirectly, but can't be measured in those monetary forms.

Unfortunately, the UCOP budget document ties future budget increases to the University's ability to support the workforce with bachelor's degrees.  The goal is "Investment to Improve Graduation Rates, Reduce Time-to-Degree, and increase degree production" (5-6).  The target is set by the shortage of 1.1 million B.A. degrees that the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has projected for 2030 (UC's share would be 251,000 additional degrees). This commits UC to producing more degrees through faster and shorter UC learning.  

I can't delve into each of the problems with this position, but will list the main ones:
  1. workforce development has always been a formal UC goal, and has not stopped state disinvestment. (See this consultant report from 2003, which in spite of its subtitle is only about economics and health).
  2. UCOP encourages the non-monetary effects of university education to remain "dark matter," even though non-monetary benefits explain the cost differences between universities and job training centers.  These start with new knowledge through research--obviously a core mission of research universities--and include doctoral education and the formation of non-routine cognitive skills in undergraduates.  These things are slow and hard, and cost money.
  3. the means UCOP proposes to get the additional quarter-million B.A.s--faster- and shorter degrees--slights UC's already very good graduation rates among public universities, and downplays previous progress towards shorter degree times and higher graduation rates.
  4. It also ignores the possibility that further grad rate increases will be much harder and more expensive. They will often involve fixing social and economic problems, such as excessive student work hours to cover basic expenses like food and rent.  UCOP is effectively putting UC on the hook for the state's high poverty rates and income inequality, which it lacks the means to solve.
  5. The normal way to increase quantity is to cut corners and lower quality.  Campus administrations already pushed departments to minimize degree requirements after the 2008 financial crisis. In addition, many have or are moving to increasing units for a standard quarter course from 4 to 5 but without increasing instruction, so students can graduate with fewer courses.   More undergrad education will have to be done by the youngest and least experienced instructors, primarily graduate students and adjuncts.
  6. Paradoxically, promising to improve graduation rates will increase the chances of sub-par funding.  That's because permanent austerity has already forced the kinds of academic shortcuts that have pushed students through more quickly. The lesson some in government have drawn is that less money for UC means more UC degrees.  
  7. UCOP is avoiding discussion of B.A. degree content even in the context of a narrow mainstream human-capital model of the degree.  PPIC's calculations use wage premiums to identify "college" jobs (they are these where the employer is willing to pay more to get bachelors' degrees).  They do not do content analysis of future skills (See Technical Appendix C, p 15).  Jobs in 2030 are likely to require better BAs, not just more of them.  UC could be caught well behind the quality curve.
Since UCOP isn't explaining what is really special about UC upper and lower division education, it is putting the University into price competition with the CCCs. They are cheap because they are underfunded, lack research faculty, and over-use contingent faculty.  UC can't come close to CCC cost targets, but calls for straight workforce preparation in effect ask for UC to be compared to them.  (Workforce prep also undermines the Regents' document's other goals, like well-paid high-status research faculty.)

The quality of the education UCOP gives the Board of Regents is especially important now.  California gets a new governor next year. UC got four new regents in August, none with evident educational experience.  They need reasons to see the ideal UC as something other than an inexpensive provider of middle-skill workforce growth. This document doesn't give them any.

On the other hand, a faculty group, either the Senate or CUCFA, could write a better educational storyline, one that includes workforce data while going well beyond it.  Why don't we do that?

Update: Cloudminder recounts the lack of meaningful review of Jerry Brown's four August appointments to the Board of Regents, with clips.

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