Monday, October 25, 2010

A Response to the Commission on the Future’s Final Recommendations

Since the regents are supposed to be discussing the Commission on the Future’s recommendations at their November 16-18 meeting, it is important to look at their final report. Following the trend of most recent UC documents, the Commission begins by claiming a dire fiscal crisis: “state funding has not kept pace with inflation and enrollment growth, particularly over the last decade. Since 1990-91, average inflation-adjusted state support for educating UC students declined 54 percent. Student fee increases have addressed only about two-fifths (40%) of this decrease. Other actions to reduce costs have resulted in reduction in staff and instructional offerings, faculty and staff salary lags and reductions in funding for instructional equipment, library materials, and facilities maintenance.” As I have argued before, these statistics are misleading because they neglect to add that since 1990, UC has reduced its instructional costs by increasing the size of classes and relying on inexpensive non-tenured faculty to teach the majority of the courses. Moreover, while the report claims that UC now only gets $7,570 per student from the state, the real figure is closer to $10,000, and on some campuses, the amount goes up to $18,000. In fact, according to the Commission’s own numbers, in 2009-10, there were 214,000 resident students, and since the university got over $2.5 billion in funding from the state, the average student subsidy was $11,687.

Processing Students at a Faster Rate

Since the university claims that it is not getting enough money from the state, and it cannot support increased enrollments, the only thing that can be done is to do more with less. In fact, many of the commission’s recommendations are shaped by this logic, which is itself based on a false understanding of how the university actually spends its money. For example, Recommendation 1, Adopt Strategies for Reducing Time to Degree, argues that the university can save money by pushing undergraduate students through the system at a faster rate: “Implementing formal programs that encourage and facilitate a shorter time to degree, such as “packaged” options for three-year degrees with pathways that make full use of advanced placement credits and summer terms. Such pathways could include joint bachelor’s/master’s degree programs.” While three-year degrees would lower the quality of a UC degree, they would do nothing to improve the fiscal health of the system.

Not only does the Commission want to decrease the time it takes to get a degree, but it also wants to increase the number of transfer students and reduce the number of traditional freshman enrollments. Recommendation 4: Reaffirm the University’s Commitment to Achieving Master Plan Targets for Freshman and Transfer Students looks a good idea on the surface, but it does not take into account the economic realities of accepting more transfer students. By calling for a 60:40 ratio between upper- and lower-division students, the university will cut into its profit margin generated by large enrollment, low-cost, lower-division courses.

Due to the way courses are currently structured in the UC system, lower-division undergraduate courses produce a profit, while upper-division classes break even, and graduate education loses money. This economic analysis is not meant to undermine graduate education, but it is essential for us to recognize that we need to honestly see where money comes in and where it goes. Once we know how we gain and spend money, we can determine how to support the programs we want to protect. In fact, the final report does at one point recognize this funding structure, “Admittedly, the education of upper-division students is more expensive because of smaller classes and necessary specialization and facilities. As implemented, the resource consequences must be monitored. From an aggregate perspective, however, transfer students require only two years of UC resources in order to graduate with a UC bachelor’s degree. Serving transfer students increases the number of degrees the UC can confer with any given level of instructional resources.” While the first part of this argument acknowledges the financial need for more lower-division courses, the final part ignores this financial reality and simply returns to the desire to increase degrees by increasing transfer enrollments.

In fact, by calling for a 60:40 ratio between upper- and lower-division students, the university will commit economic suicide. Not only are upper-division students more expensive, but transfer students limit the ability of the university to accept out-of-state students who pay a high tuition without financial aid.

The Online Solution
Another result of the commission’s failure to grasp that undergraduate students subsidize the rest of the university is their call for online classes. The very title of Recommendation 5, “Continue Timely Exploration of Fully Online Instruction for Undergraduates, as well as for Self-Supporting Programs and in University Extension” makes one think that self-supporting programs actually provide needed dollars to the general fund. Moreover, the commission makes the following dubious claim: “Within the general realm of our current on-campus programs, and in the near-to- mid term, increased online instruction may . . . reduce course impaction, reduce scheduling conflicts, and increase summer session enrollments by enabling students to earn credits without being on campus, thus reducing students’ average time to degree.” What this analysis does not state is that online courses are likely to cost more money, decrease the quality of UC courses, require more faculty work, and draw funding away from the core mission.

While there are some words of caution in the Commission’s discussion of online courses, the final report calls for a major extension of digital education: “The Commission believes that the Pilot Project currently being coordinated by the Office of the President, with the endorsement and participation of the Senate, may clarify the desirability of substantially increasing the use of fully online instruction for degree credit, beginning with lower division and UC Extension courses.” Once again, the problem is that if the UC farms out its lower-division courses, departments might lose one of their central sources for funding.

External Grants and Endowments Lose Money

One positive part of the final report is the acknowledgement that external research grants cost the university several hundred million dollars a year: “Externally funded research in the University of California is supposed to be conducted under the accounting principle of total cost recovery, including indirect costs. The indirect costs are intended to recover the facilities and administrative costs attributable to research. However, Indirect Cost Recovery (ICR) rates on federally funded research at UC campuses do not fully recover the costs of research, falling 5-10 percentage points behind some of our comparator institutions and on average 25 percent short of full recovery. For a variety of historical reasons and local campus practices, UC also does not fully recover the costs of research for non-federally funded research projects – those projects funded by the State of California, foundations, gifts, and corporations.” It turns out that while most people think external grants and endowment gifts bring money to universities, these external funds can actually cost schools large sums because they fail to cover the indirect costs associated with buildings, benefits, labs, staff, administration, and equipment.

The Costly Problem of Graduate Education
If we acknowledge that external funding can actually hurt the financial health of an institution, we realize that the only real source of income for the university is undergraduate tuition and related state funding. Yet, Recommendation 12 calls for, “Increase Graduate Student Enrollment to Meet Long Range Planning Goals and Research Mission Prescribed in the Master Plan.” Although the UC system needs to continue to support graduate education, it is unclear how this can be accomplished. For example, the Commission recommends a shift in the ratio between graduate and undergraduate enrollments: “To be excellent in national and global terms, however, the proportion of graduate enrollments relative to undergraduate enrollment must be adequate to support the research and instructional mission.” It is unclear whether this statement means that the university needs graduate students to teach undergraduates, or the university needs to increase graduate students to retain its prestige and to support the research mission.

What is clear is that a change in the ratio of graduate-to-undergraduate students would require either an abandonment of the Master Plan or a new funding model: “The education of graduate students is more expensive than undergraduate students, both in instructional costs and student financial support. Therefore, under current and the baseline fiscal projections, funding for graduate enrollment growth would require that campuses reduce undergraduate enrollment—an unacceptable result in light of our access mission and commitment to the Master Plan enrollment goals.” Given this awareness of the high cost of graduate education, it becomes hard to rationalize the following recommendation of the Commission: “Recognizing UC’s role in the Master Plan as the state’s primary research and doctoral-granting institution, the Commission recommends that the University increase the proportion of graduate enrollments from 22 percent of total enrollments to 26 percent by 2020-21, with individual targets set by each campus.” From a strictly budgetary perspective, it makes no sense to replace the profit-generating undergraduate students with costly graduate programs. In fact, due to the often low levels of support for graduate students in the UC system, it would be much more cost effective and fair if the university reduced the number of graduate students and increased their funding.

The Failure to Grasp the Budget as a Whole
It should be clear at this point that the Commission’s recommendations do not fit together and suffer from an integrated understanding of how money flows in the UC system. In fact, even the good suggestion of reducing administrative costs is undermined by the methods for achieving the savings. While recommendation 14 calls for the system to, “Expedite Implementation of UC’s Initiative on System-Wide Administrative Reforms, with the Goal of $500 Million in Annual,” the way the reductions are being resented represent a major increase in power for the Office of the President. In fact, after a period of reducing the UCOP budget by farming positions out to the campus, we are now witnessing a major increase in UCOP positions.

Since no one is looking at how the different parts of the university budget interact, many of the proposed ways of saving money will actually cost the university funds in the long run. For example, the call to derive $250 million from self-supporting programs, like extension, fails to recognize how these programs often turn a profit by not paying their fair share for buildings, administration, staff, benefits, and maintenance. In other words, self-sustaining units are not actually self-sustaining, and they rely on using UC facilities and faculty even though they claim to be separate and private. Moreover, as the report posits, most of the profits of these self-sustaining units come from one source: “Current UC self-supporting programs generate about $100 million annually, about $25 million per year above program costs. However, most of that revenue comes from the high- cost, self-supporting executive MBA programs. To date, most other self-supporting programs are relatively small and generate modest amounts above programs costs.” Unless, we want to shut down most of the privatized programs and increase the production of executive MBAs, we will need to find another source for revenue.

Even Private Gifts Lose Money

Another proposed area for future revenue is private fundraising, but as recommendation 16 notes, the way these funds are donated often restricts their use and prevents them from contributing to the common good: “The University’s history of fundraising, however, is marked by a high level of restriction on the funds raised. Approximately 95 percent of UC’s overall endowment payout is restricted, contrasted with 80 percent for most public institutions and 55 percent for private institutions. Only two percent of all gift support in recent years is unrestricted, even less for endowment. To put this in context, of the $1.3 billion in funds raised in FY 2008-09, just over $25 million could be characterized as unrestricted.” Not only are most of these endowment funds dedicated to specific projects, but they often fail to cover the full costs of the programs and positions they support. Furthermore, the university spends huge sums of money trying to raise more endowment funds.

When All Else Fails, Raise Tuition
The final recommendation calls for exploring differential tuition by campus, and it is clear from the Commission’s final report that they see this as a very attractive proposition: “Although tuition cannot singlehandedly solve UC’s budgetary challenges, it is a key component of any funding strategy and one of the only revenue sources that UC can effect to replace other funding shortfalls. There still exists substantial headroom on each campus for across-the-board tuition increases without impacting enrollments.” In other words, campuses can raise tuition and still attract high enrollments, and so each campus should be able to set their own price. Of course, this recommendation completely negates the previous defense of the Master Plan and the very essence of a public university.

The Real Recommendations
At the end of this mixed bag of recommendations, the Commission adds a curious section under the heading of “Contingency Recommendations”: “In addition to the recommendations endorsed, the Commission also deliberated several ideas that are worthy of additional study but need not be advanced at this time. Should the fiscal crisis deepen and state and other funding sources continue to decline to a point where the University can no longer sustain its longstanding commitment to academic quality and increasing access, The Regents, President, Chancellors, and Academic Senate may need to consider some or all of the following contingency measures.” By starting with the rhetoric of crisis, the Commission opens the door to a whole host of problematic suggestions: “Curtail student enrollment, potentially falling short of achieving the Master Plan ratios recommended by the Commission (see Recommendation 4) and restricting access at both the undergraduate (freshmen and transfers) and graduate levels: Re-examine UC’s financial aid strategies, also recommended by the Commission (see Recommendation 6), including reducing the portion of new undergraduate tuition revenue that is set aside (currently 33%) to fund financial aid for needy students; Raise or eliminate the systemwide limit on the proportion of nonresident undergraduate students admitted and enrolled (the Commission recommends a 10 percent systemwide cap in Recommendation 7): Substantially increase tuition and fees, including charging differential tuition by campus (see Recommendation 17), as part of a broad based program to sustain the University; Downsize the University’s faculty and staff workforce, including limiting the replacement of faculty lost due to retirements, terminations, and other separations. This recommendation came to the Commission from the Academic Council: Forego new building and capital projects that are not absolutely essential for safety. “

I believe that these final suggestions actually represent the real recommendations of the Commission. In this neoliberal vision, the few students who are lucky to get into the UC system will pay much more, receive less financial aid, and will be taught be fewer faculty members. This is the ultimate vision of downsized version of public higher education. Let us hope that the Regents have the insight to see that not only do these plans fail to make educational sense, but they also do not make fiscal sense.

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