University of California or University in California

The future of the University of California is even more daunting for organizers than the troubled present.

The problem: Students, faculty, and the citizens of California have interests in both access to the University system and maintaining some degree of excellence in the system.  It’s extremely hard to focus on both issues simultaneously, and it’s hard to know who to work with and who to trust.

Over the past five years, the University has been fighting losing battles on both fronts.  As the state of California has consistently cut funding, the University has cut spending and programs while raising tuition.  Most of the ten campuses are working hard to increase the percentage of out-of-state and international students, who pay much higher tuition.  It’s a viable revenue strategy, but it’s understandable why California taxpayers are incensed that their University has less room for the young people of California.

Meanwhile, ongoing cuts to programs are affecting the quality of education UC students receive.  Saturday’s New York Times reports that students face fewer classes, larger classes, tougher admissions standards, less attention, higher tuition, and even a less demanding education.  According to the Times, every student may still have access to an academic adviser, but each adviser is now responsible for 500 students (rather than 300 in years past).  Is that access?  Many professors facing larger classes with fewer teaching assistants now require less writing, shorter and fewer papers.  (When I came to UCI, about a dozen years ago, each of my TAs was typically responsible for 80-90 students; 120-140 is now more typical.  If this doesn’t seem like much of a difference to you, try to imagine reading and commenting on 40 ten page papers.)  Students are unlikely to complain about such reforms, but they’re certainly not being helped.

The University’s management, seeing state support as unreliable, is explicitly moving toward a model where the campuses can function with less of it.  A few states have maintained excellent universities with declining support from their state.  The University of Michigan, for example, gets only about 17 percent of its budget from the state of Michigan.  It charges nearly $40,000 a year in tuition from out of state students, and those higher paying students make up about 40 percent of the undergraduates.

The Michigan students who gain admission can get a great education even as the state continues to cut support, but fewer Michiganders can get in.  I’d guess that fewer of the graduates are going to be eager to stay in the state after graduation.  The University will be responsive to the people who help it keep operating.  State legislators and tax payers who are getting less deference and responsiveness from the University are even less likely to want to contribute to it.  Yipes!

This is one possible future for UC campuses, and it’s not an attractive one.  The Council of UC Faculty Associations is ringing the alarm bells about adopting a Michigan model:

UC President Mark Yudof and Governor Jerry Brown are working out a deal behind closed doors that will loosen the most important ties between the university and the state…

Although they will both praise the deal by saying that it “stabilizes” funding while granting greater “flexibility,” its essence is that each will let the other off the hook: UC will mute complaints that it does not get enough money from the state and the state will stop holding UC accountable for the money it still gets.

The likely result is that UC will dump a larger number of eligible Californians onto the CSU and Community Colleges, which will in turn pass on their overflow to for-profit schools, where students take on inordinate amounts of debt with a very high likelihood of default.

* UC will no longer promise the state that it will admit a fixed number of California students in return for the enrollment funding that the state provides. For next year, and presumably from now on, UC will be allowed to use taxpayer funding as it pleases, without being accountable for the number of in-state students it educates (http://www.lao.ca.gov/analysis/2012/highered/higher-ed-020812.pdf, pg. 19). This means that UC is likely to enroll fewer California students, and to replace them with out-of-state and international students who pay more. The likely result is that UC will be able make more on average from its enrollments, that the state is likely to pay less, and that middle-income Californians will get less access to UC…

UC will be able to say that how much it spends to educate Californians and how many of them it enrolls is its own business, and not the state’s. If UC thinks its traditional mission is a money-loser, it can now use its continuing, but declining, revenues from the state to diversify into fields where it sees a brighter future. It will not be expected to draw on its other, more entrepreneurial, activities to subsidize public higher education, but instead will be allowed to use state educational funds to subsidize these other activities — and especially the capital projects necessary to get them off the ground…

An alternative model is to focus on delivering whatever we can with limited funds, continuing to increase class sizes, cut salaries, maintenance, and offerings.  It is definitely possible to spend less, but only by providing less.  Look: the California State University system delivers less and charges less.  Of course, CSU is also facing severe cuts.  Many states have decided to forgo subsidizing a top-flight research university system.

That’s another possible future.  Alas, I fear that focusing only on stopping tuition hikes leads that way.  Californians who want a top flight research university education can apply to institutions that deliver it–and find a way to pay.

Probably like most faculty, I’d prefer to return to the system laid out in the Master Plan more than fifty years ago–high investment and minimal tuition–and to pay taxes for it.

Lots of Californians will disagree with me, which is fine, but they should articulate the model they prefer for public higher education.  There are plenty of real examples out there, but please don’t lean on the imaginary ones, in which spending can always be cut without compromising what’s bought.  We’ll never get more than what we pay for.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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One Response to University of California or University in California

  1. Pingback: University of California or University in California- guest repost « ucfacultysupportingstudents

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