Saturday, November 21, 2009

Whither Public Higher Education in California?

The University of California’s 32% increase in student fees is breathtaking and shocking as have been the recent fee increases adopted at the California State University. Students and others have reacted with anger and frustration in protesting these actions. But exactly what are the alternatives so long as Sacramento continues to reduce funding for these two outstanding institutions of higher education and even the public, while holding these institutions and the community college system in high esteem, is not disposed to pay higher taxes to support them.

The Los Angeles Times published an editorial on the subject today which offers no meaningful alternatives. Below is its editorial. Under that is my critical letter to the editor taking The Times to task for its suggested alternatives.,0,6386749.story
UC on the brink
Another increase in 'fees' hits students hard, but the system itself may now be at risk.

Sorry to say, the University of California Board of Regents took the easiest route possible out of its crushing financial dilemma Thursday by placing the burden squarely on the shoulders of students. We can't help wondering whether the regents understand that the nearly one-third increase in undergraduate tuition -- it's time to dispense with the euphemism of "fees" for UC students -- could prove the tipping point for the nation's greatest public university system, including its star campus, UC Berkeley, the top-ranked public university in the world.

UC is still cheap, relatively speaking, though its tuition is higher than average for public colleges. Even tuition of more than $10,000, which will start next year at UC, compares well with the $26,300 average at private universities and colleges. But that's more than twice what it was a decade ago, meaning it grew at four times the rate of inflation. And room and board at UC costs another $14,000 or so, about the same as at private schools.

UC has long drawn the best and brightest from all the socioeconomic strata in California, especially among the middle class, whose incomes were too high for financial aid at private universities. But private schools have pumped up their merit-based scholarships in recent years to attract top students. Once those awards are figured in, there's not much difference between UC and a private college except that UC also has been reducing class offerings to the point where students are finding it hard to get into courses they need. And as Times staff writer Larry Gordon reported, some private colleges already are using the cutbacks to recruit students away from the state's public universities.

A 32% higher price for bigger classes and less chance of a seat in desired courses won't sound like a bargain to many potential students. This isn't just a matter of easing up on families, many of whom face their own financial crises these days. UC's ability to draw top academic talent is at stake, and with that, its prestige. We all know that once prices are raised, they seldom reverse course, but the regents should not see this increase as a permanent UC entitlement. The board should consider this an emergency increase, to be lifted as soon as possible.

Some kind of fee increase was inevitable. The state's budget ax has fallen heavily on UC, and families had to expect to share some of the pain. But there were ways to soften the blow, including by greatly expanding plans to recruit and enroll more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition, and brokering a deal with Sacramento to temporarily reduce overall enrollment without losing funding. Such measures would be easy to calibrate up or down as future needs demand, and they are more likely to be reversed in better times than the newly approved tuition increase.

Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times

Letter to the Editor:

I'm sorry, but which of your insightful editorial board members drafted your "UC on the brink" editorial in today's (Nov 21, 09) Los Angeles Times? Your reasoning and logic are impeccably poor.

I was waiting for your alternatives to the tuition increase and they are lame or worse. Increase the number of out of state students? My gosh, that is ridiculous. First, why should non-Californians be awarded choice seats in University of California classes ahead of California residents? Does that seem fair by any standard to you? I note the Letter to the Editor in today's edition, "What the 'C' in UC stands for", which makes a similar point regarding foreign students. Nothing against foreign or out-of-state students but since tuition, even out of state tuition, doesn't really pay the full costs of a student's education, California would be subsidizing the student's education, but this time it would be someone who comes from outside California. Second, I assume, or should I, that you know that after a year most out-of-state students establish residence and pay the lower in-state tuition. So, increasing out-of-state admissions as a fundraiser is foolhardy from a fairness and an economic planning perspective.

Your other alternative is a short term reduction in the student population. That is less ridiculous and, in fact, is part of the way the California State University has sought to cope with the budget fiasco. But, since the theme in your editorial is that students are bearing the burden alone, decreasing enrollment of students doesn't change that one bit. They still end up in the cold. So, again, the logic of your argument is lacking.

I don't claim to have clear alternatives. I bemoan what is happening to California's two outstanding four-year institutions of higher education. But your focus on solving the problems or at least limiting the pain should be on Sacramento and the bankrupt legislative system, including the two-thirds vote needed to increase taxes. The Legislative Analyst is now predicting a $21 billion deficit through fiscal year 2010-2011 and unless Sacramento does something differently funding for UC and CSU may continue to decline.

By the way, students are not the only ones bearing the brunt of this economic and budgetary meltdown. UC and CSU employees, including faculty, staff and administrators, have been furloughed for most if not all of the current fiscal year. And, of course, ultimately the State of California and its dear citizens, residents and others, will pay the price of a diminished higher education system. According to recent data, over 60% of Californians feel strongly in favor of California's tripartite system of post-secondary education but these same Californians are unwilling to pay more to sustain the system. Shame on them, although with over 12% unemployment in California their current mood is at least somewhat understandable, but unfortunately that attitude may signal that there are no likely solutions to the fiscal crisis. If Californians are unwilling to support their public system then Sacramento will not increase taxes and will likely not increase or even restore full funding, and the quality of higher education in California will continue to spiral down.