Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The May Revise and Online Chaos

Governor Brown’s May revision of the state budget for the University of California makes very few changes. One difference from the January budget is the removal of a cap on how many units students can take and still receive financial aid (Cal Grants). Another change deals with the introduction of accountability measures for UC funding. While the governor’s Department of Finance has released an outline of the accountability measures, the May Revise pulls them pack and states that the governor will work with the legislature to develop the guidelines. The backstory is that during a legislative hearing on higher education, it became clear that there were many problems with the governor’s multi-year proposal to tie funding to a 10% increase in graduation rates for UC and CSU. One major problem is that the CSU 4-year graduation rate is 16%, and the UC 4-year rate is 60%, so the UC would have to increase by 6% and the CSU by 1.6%. Also the legislative analyst pointed out that most multi-year deals between the state and the UC have been broken, and therefore, it is not a good idea to make long-term funding commitments. The LAO also argued that it might be a good idea to first study why people do not graduate in a timely fashion before you start legislating accountability measures.

The question of timely graduation is obviously a major focus of the administration, and that is one reason why the governor and the legislature want to see if online education will move students through the systems in a quicker fashion. While there is no mention of online education in the May Revise, we can assume the governor still intends to earmark $10 million of the UC budget for distance education; however, we still do not know how the governor’s funding for online education relates to Steinberg’s and Marty Block’s distance education bills. To make matters even more complicated, the UC now seems to be running several competing online programs of its own.

While the original UC online pilot program appears to be running out of funding, a new initiative, run out of the Office of the President, is calling for a new round of course proposals. Under the heading of ILTI, this call for proposals concentrates on highly-impacted, lower-division cross-campus courses. The desire here is to develop system-wide classes that would help students graduate in a more efficient manner, but there still remains the major problems of how to allow students from one campus to take courses on another campus. Not only are there issues with incompatible registration systems, but the biggest difficulty is how will revenue be shared between the campuses. For example, if many UCSB students take their Biology classes with UC Davis, who pays for the courses and how much do they pay, and what happens if suddenly, no one at UCSB is taking Biology courses, does the UCSB Biology Department layoff teachers? We have been told that a new working group has been assembled to deal with these issues, but it may take several years.

Another complication in the Online scrum is the fact that individual faculty members are signing up with private providers like Coursera to put their courses online. Meanwhile, departments are developing their own online courses, and some summer programs have augmented their online offerings. No one knows how all of these different online ventures relate to each other and how they relate to the governor’s plans and the various bills coming out of the legislature.

Since no one knows how much it really costs to educate a student in the UC system, it is hard to know if online courses will save money or not. In fact, the governor’s January budget did include some budget transparency language to see how much it costs to educate each student, but the UC does not have to report on this until October 2014. It would make sense to hold off on the accountability measures until after we know how much things actually cost and why students do not graduate in a more timely fashion.

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