While a recent Los Angeles Times editorial argued that the solution to the University of California’s budget problems is to reduce enrollments, this suggestion would not only limit access when it is most needed, but it would also hurt the funding of the entire system. Currently, undergraduate tuition is the only stable source of funding for the UC system, and the revenue generated by in-state and nonresident students subsidizes research, administration, and most other UC activities. In fact, the university receives on average $23,000 from each undergraduate student (this includes state and student revenue) but only spends $8,000 on direct instructional costs. In other words, the university will generate more income if it enrolls more students.
By increasing the number of international students and maintaining the level of resident enrollees, the UC could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, while it supports the goals of access, affordability, and excellence. This growth model would require hiring more assistant professors and lecturers, and for people who worry about undermining the research mission, it should be stressed that the more income generated by tuition, the more we can support research.
Some have argued that the system does not have enough classrooms or facilities, but this is a false excuse. If the universities expand their hours of operations and have more evening courses, more students can be accommodated. Also, housing and dining are self-supporting and often produce profits so they can handle an influx of students, and let’s not forget that there are plenty of empty houses and buildings around our campuses.
A key to this growth model would be a better balance between teaching and research, and this could be accomplished in two cost efficient ways. The first step is to avoid the costly move to online education and to provide more opportunities for faculty members to teach undergraduate courses in their areas of specialization. The UCLA English Department has already moved in this direction. Another move would be to replace large courses with smaller seminars that allow for more student-faculty interaction. While this change looks like it would cost more money, it is often cheaper to have smaller classes due to the added cost of sections attached to large lecture classes.
If the UC can increase its instructional quality, while bringing in more revenue, it can become a national leader in how to save our research universities. All of the other options on the table call for a massive reduction of enrollments, layoffs, decreased opportunity, and financial self-destruction. We can have improved access, affordability, and quality, if we make undergraduate education an essential priority.