Monday, December 31, 2012

Online for Higher Ed in California Event

A forum on online education will be held on January 8th at UCLA (Kerckhoff Grand Salon, 9-3). The ambitious title is the following: “Rebooting CA Higher Education: Leveraging innovations in online education to improve cost effectiveness and increase quality.” Here is the schedule of speakers:

January 8, 2013 9:00am to 3:00pm UCLA Kerckhoff Hall, Grand Salon
● Darrell Steinberg, California Senate Pro Tem Setting the Stage / Keynote 9:10-9:25
● Jeff Selingo, Editor at Large, Chronicle of Higher Education Online Educational Delivery Models 9:25- 9:35
● Phil Hill, Educational Tech Consultant & Analyst Scaling Education, Maintaining Quality 9:35-10:05
● Candace Thille, OLI Carnegie Mellon; Mo Qayoumi and Ping Hsu, San Jose State University; Michael Feldstein, Educational Tech Consultant & Analyst

Moderated Online Provider Panel 10:05-11:45
● Sebastian Thrun (Udacity); Burck Smith (Straighterline); Daphne Koller (Coursera); Phillip Regier (ASU Online); Andreea M Serban (Coast Community College); Chari Leader Kelley (Learning Counts); Don Kilburn (Pearson); Ray Cross (University of Wisconsin Colleges/ UW Extension), Steve Klingler (Western Governor's University)
Student Experience 11:45-12:00
● Student Representatives: Andrew Litt, UCLA; Martha Harding, College of the Canyons CA University/Policymakers Perspective 12:00-12:30
● Keith Williams, Interim Director UC Online; Barry Russell, Community College Vice Chancellor, Academic Affairs; Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, UC Regent, CSU Trustee; John Welty, Chair CSU Online

Moderated Faculty Panel with Questions to Providers 12:30-1:30
● Michelle Pilati, President, Community College Academic Senate; Diana Wright Guerin, President, CSU Academic Senate; Robert Powell, Chair, UC Academic Senate; Bob Samuels, President of University Council AFT; Lillian Taiz, President, California Faculty Association

In the advertisement for the event, it states the following: “The purpose of the panel discussion is to raise the awareness and discuss key issues regarding the potential for online education to lower the costs for higher education in California. We face a crisis in California in our ability to fully support public higher education. As a first approximation, the state should focus its attention on arresting the growth of the cost of education while maintaining or even increasing access and quality, not by simply urging educators to “do more with less,” but by enlisting their active participation in and contribution to innovative approaches. In accomplishing this goal, California could foster a working coalition that would be capable of attacking even more ambitious targets.” Although it is clear here that the frame for the conference is the idea that online education can make higher education more cost effective, I plan to use my time to show how the move to distance education will most likely only increase the cost of instruction.

What is interesting about this event is that it brings together groups that don’t normally talk to each other, and while I think that many of these stakeholders are well intentioned, I also believe that good intentions can lead to some very bad collective results. This event is free and open to the public so please come if you are able.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The One-Dimensional University: The Destructive Marriage of Technology and Administration

Close to fifty years ago, Herbert Marcuse wrote One-Dimensional Man, a radical criticism of contemporary society that has much to say about the current world around us. Marcuse’s central claim was that technological automation extends science’s domination over nature to a social domination over individuals. This domination occurs through a “total administration,” where managers oversee the rationalization of the social status quo through the elimination of all criticism and the provision of desired social goods. Perhaps, what we are seeing at the University of California is only the logical extension of Marcuse’s insightful analysis.

Not only does it appear that administrators have taken over the university, but they are promoting a form of education that transforms students into passive memorizers of standardized information. With the push to move students through the university system in an efficient and cost-effective manner, education is reimagined as an automated human assembly line. Meanwhile, students in large classes are socialized to internalize fragmented information without any possibility of interacting with knowledge in a critical or creative manner. All of these tendencies open up the door for an online education program that envisions mass producing standardized courses to an anonymous student body.

While this degradation of education increases, the university becomes a place of tax-exempt capital accumulation and a research wing of the military-industrial complex and the pharmaceutical-medical complex. As biology is turned into genetic code and culture becomes digital code, we find Marcuse’s warning that every aspect of society is being re-interpreted through the language of functionality and instrumentality. After all, the academic evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists now tell us that we are nothing but biological computers programmed by nature. Here, we have become things (computers) as things are given the power of people. For Marcuse, this confusion between subjects and objects is the end result of total technological rationality.

The lasting image of this transformation of education into administered functionality may be the representation of a campus police officer pepper spraying prone students with an attitude of total indifference. In the alienated world of planning, management, and calculation, there is no space for tension, dissent, or difference. Or maybe, the new logo for the university is an even better representation of the truth of how the administration sees the students: here the management replaces pepper spray with urine as it reimagines the university to be the giant Urinal of California. I say it is better to be pissed off than pissed on, and we need to do everything in our power to retake the university from the hands of administered technological rationality.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Seductive Mechanical Reproduction of the University

UC has released a new advertisement for new online program, and it is quite revealing. In fact, if you Google UC Online, you will most likely see the ad appear at the top of the page (I wonder how much this cost the UC). The sales pitch begins with the following: “Sign up today to learn more about the new, exciting, and fully online experience now being offered by University of California. Taught by the same instructors that have provided a top-tier education to some of the world’s best and brightest, these online courses immerse you in the world of high academic standards that, previously, could only be found on a UC campus.” Yes, it is new and exciting and just like the real UC experience. However, it is unclear still who will teach the courses or what academic standards will be applied.

The ad continues by putting down the real UC education: “Because our courses are online, they offer a level of flexibility that doesn’t exist in a more traditional college setting. Where and when you learn is up to you. What you learn makes this opportunity unique.” In other words, unlike those traditional universities (like the University of California), education in the online courses will be flexible, personalized, and unique.

The ad next shifts to a more threatening and dubious claim: “Many of our courses are great for fulfilling prerequisite or transfer credit requirements, such as the following; “Pre-Calculus 1A, Pre-Calculus 1B, General Psychology, General Chemistry, Introduction to Writing & Rhetoric,Intro to Probability & Statistics for Business.” So for people who are not yet matriculated into the UC system, they can start to earn credits and fulfill perquisites. This sounds like a good deal, but is it really? (On a separate page, you find the following disclaimer: “Please note that registering for any of the UC Online classes does not admit you to a University of California campus. Also, participating in this educational program does not in itself provide preference in admission to the University of California.”)

If you click on the Pricing link, you discover that the courses come at a steep price: Intro to Fresh Water: Processes and Policies $1,750 Pre-Calculus 1A $1,400 Pre-Calculus 1B $1,400 Beauty & Joy of Computing $2,100 Principles of Internet Citizenship $2,100 Intro to Writing & Rhetoric $1,400 General Psychology $1,575 General Chemistry $1,575 Intro to Probability & Stats for Business $2,100 Global Climate Change $1,050. The cost for 10 courses would be $15,050, and I do not see any mention of financial aid here.

So the way the university is going to expand access is to charge students more to get less and offer them less support for the hope that they can maybe use the credits in the future. This ad for a pricey possible education also contains a picture of an attractive blond female student wearing glasses as she holds her laptop near a fuzzy whiteboard. Welcome to the brave new world of the UC commercial!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Doing Online Right

Several of my recent posts have dealt with the negative aspects of the UC move to place courses online, but I want to clarify that many faculty members are currently using digital technologies in an effective manner. For example, many uc teachers are having their students produce web sites and analyze a wide range of web-based contents. There is also a growing use of digital courseware and class management systems, and many faculty employ online class discussions. Moreover, we are witnessing efforts to use digital and multimedia textbooks as we teach our students how to access and assess digital media. Finally, we already have thousands of classes that are either totally or partially online.

One reason the Regents may not know about the high level of digital activity in the UC system is because the Regents are not educators, and they have little knowledge of what really goes on in university classrooms. Unfortunately, the latest Regents meeting revealed that many of the UC administrators also do not know about the use of digital technologies in the UC system: we have online extension programs, we have networked classrooms, we have digital labs, and we have digital libraries – in fact, we may be one of the world leaders in high-tech education, but what we do not have is a replication of the University of Phoenix.

If you listen to the end of the discussion about online learning from the last Regents meeting, you will hear the exasperated Berkeley Chancellor Birgenou exclaim, “I have no idea what you people are talking about.” From my perspective, this was the new former Chancellor’s best moment. Yes, the Regents actually have no idea what is going on in the very institution they are supposed to be directing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Online Instruction, Budget Transparency, and the Cost of Education

For the last ten years, UC-AFT has been fighting a battle with the University of California over budget transparency. One of our main concerns has been how much it actually costs to educate each individual undergraduate student and how much funding does each student generate in state and tuition dollars. So far the Office of the President has refused to make these calculations because they do not think you can or should separate teaching from research and administration, and even though the new rebenching funding model does try to account for the different costs structures related to undergraduate vs, graduate vs. professional education, the university still insists that it would be too costly and time-consuming to really determine the cost of educating different types of students. However, the push for online education should motivate UCOP to change its strategy because the Regents and the state are under the false impression that distance education can solve the university’s fiscal problems.

The main reason why the Regents and the governor are misguided is because they do not know that the highly-impacted, lower-division courses that UC wants to move online may be the only thing that really generates a profit for the university. For example, in looking at my first- and second-year students’ transcripts at UCLA, I calculated the average, yearly direct instructional cost for a typical lower-division undergraduate student. I found that since students in their first two years at UCLA tend to take 8 large courses (averaging 200 students) and 2 small classes (averaging 25 students) each year, and half of these courses are taught by lecturers, the total direct instructional cost per year is $1,950 (an if we add 20% for benefits, it costs $2,340). (UC brings in $16,000 per undergrad student in combined tuition and state funds).

Here is how I made this calculation: since the average full-time lecturer salary is currently $60,000 and the full load is 8 courses, each of the courses cost $7,500. If a lower-division student takes four large lecture classes (averaging 200 students) with a lecturer, the cost per student for each course is $37.50. In the case of senate faculty teaching lower-division lecture classes making $100,000 for four courses a year, the cost for the four large lecture classes is $500 per student. If we then do the same calculation for small classes of 25 students, the cost for a course taught by a lecturer is $300 and the course taught by a senate faculty member is $1,000.

One can argue with this methodology, but what should be absolutely clear is that it is virtually impossible for the online program to deliver education for less money. Although the Regents and the Governor bemoan the fact that universities have failed to follow other “industries” by reducing costs through technology, what they do not see is that costs have been reduced by the use of large classes and non-tenured faculty. However, UCOP does not want to make this argument because its entire budgetary structure is based on half-truths and abstract calculations.

Making matters worse is the fact that the UC has already spent a lot of money on the online pilot program, and studies have shown that universities constantly under-estimate the real costs of distance education. For example, in his article “The Costs and Costing of Online Learning,”, Greville Rumble looks at the actual costs of using online courses at research universities. His main finding is that previous research on this topic failed to take into account all of the related expenses: “One of the problems with many of the studies now available is that they report the broad results, not the detail. It is therefore difficult to know what has been included and what excluded, and so whether the costings undertaken are comprehensive. Experience suggests, however, that all figures need to be treated with care. What does seem clear is that the costs of developing a course are being pushed up—and significantly so whenever media are used in a sophisticated way. If so, and if cost efficiency is an important consideration, then savings may need to be looked for in delivery.” Rumble here argues that one of the main cost drivers in online courses is the development of the class material.

In fact, his research shows that if universities want to produce a high-quality educational experience, they have to spend a great deal of money: “The high costs of developing internet courses are confirmed by Saba, who suggests that commercial software companies developing courses for online instruction or publishers are spending at least $500,000 to fully develop a multimedia course.” It is important to note that when universities present the cost of new online programs, they usually do not account for the initial costs of course development.

Rumble also believes that although these new programs are often used to save labor costs and faculty time, the opposite often happens: “A high proportion of the costs of developing materials is labor costs. All the research shows that it takes more academic time to develop media that will occupy a student for one hour, than it takes to develop a one-hour lecture—although how much more time is difficult to quantify. Sparkes reckoned that it took from 2 to 10 hours to prepare a lecture, from 1 to 10 hours to prepare a small group session, and from 3 to 10 hours to prepare a video-tape lecture; however, it took at least 50 to 100 academic hours to prepare a teaching text, 100 hours to prepare a television broadcast, 200 hours to develop computer-aided learning, and 300 hours to develop interactive materials—to which in all cases one needed to add the time of technical support staff.” There are thus a lot of hidden costs involved in developing online courses, and these expenses rarely show up in presentations on the cost-effectiveness of computer-mediated education.

Universities also sometimes underestimate the expenses related to delivering online courses: “In general none of the studies undertaken to date adequately factor in the costs of overheads. Although, the costs of putting in equipment directly associated with the projects (e.g., servers) are usually taken into account, as are the costs of software licenses, college operating budgets do not usually reflect the full costs of maintaining networked services.” It turns out that it is very hard to calculate the total cost of software licenses, network maintenance, and equipment for online programs, so universities simply make a guess and present it as a fact.

Furthermore, universities have a hard time predicting the number of staff and administrators they will need for a new online program: “Much depends on the context—the time spent agreeing that a group of enthusiasts can develop a project will be very different to that required to change an institution’s direction. Indeed, developing an IT [information technology] strategy is likely to be expensive.” One thing that we can be sure of is that the use of online courses drives up the cost of administration and staff while further squeezing instructional budgets. I hope to make this argument to the Regents and Governor Brown to show them the folly of the online fiscal panacea.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The UC Regents, Governor Brown, and the Online Hail Mary

During the most recent UC Regents meeting, one theme that continued to raise its ugly head was the specter of online education as the great economic cure for all that ails the university. The UCLA Faculty Association blog gives the following summary: “Regents chair Lansing pushed for more progress on online education. Others, including Lt. Gov. Newsom, were also impatient about UC progress on online education. One of the student reps was not so convinced that online education was quite the panacea that some Regents seemed to think . . . Governor Brown reflected on the discussion of online education. Tradition is a Good Thing but UC might be going the way of the Post Office and print newspapers in the face of digital developments. The proposed UC budget would increase by 9% and unless there are tuition increases the state can’t afford such projections. UC has to assume budget squeezes and find new ways to deliver services. Maybe this is more threatening than when the Regents faced Angela Davis teaching on a campus. Why can’t the Regents have experts come and talk about such matters at the next meeting? Lansing agreed to that idea and it was ordered. Lt. Gov. Newsom (if I recognized his voice) seemed to want to help design the session. Provost Dorr was criticized for not moving the online matter along faster. Chancellor Birgeneau of Berkeley said that in fact we are well engaged in online education and that the Regents seem unaware of it. (“We are leading the world.”) Gov. Brown pointed out that the Berkeley examples are not for credit. There was back and forth about what was for credit and what wasn’t. It was decided that the presentation for the next meeting will also include what UC is doing now on online education.” So it looks like the next Regents meeting will contain a presentation and discussion of the current state of the online project and what we can expect in the future for UC digital education.

This push to solve the university’s funding problems through online education needs to be put in a broader context. Recently we have witnessed many of the most elite universities in the United States jumping onto the MOOC (massive open online courses) bandwagon, and we need to ask, why are they doing this? After all, schools like Stanford, MIT, and Harvard are defined by their selectivity and high costs, and so it seems strange that they would want to promote a form of education that is open to the masses for little if any cost. Perhaps, these institutions just feel that more people in the world should be exposed to their expert knowledge, or maybe they are following the new media business model of built it, let them use it, and then charge them once they become hooked.

I would like to pose a more critical and realistic interpretation: elite universities are promoting online education, which will lead other schools to commit financial and educational suicide. To be clear, I am not arguing that this plan is an intentional plot or conspiracy; rather, following the law of unintended consequences, many good intentions can result in a destruction of the common good. Call it the inverted invisible hand: universities and individual faculty members want to do good by making their intellectual property available for free, but the end social result is that the business model for higher education is destroyed.

Just as local newspapers have been undermined by Craigslist and the music industry has been devastated by Napster and iTunes, higher education may be heading down the path of economic self-destruction. By embracing low-cost, high-access instruction, non-elite schools will lose their competitive advantage; moreover, the idea that the masses can be taught online, while the elites continue to receive valued credentials from residential institutions may result in the formation of a digital ghetto for the majority of non-wealthy Americans.

My first piece of evidence of how online education leads to institutional suicide can be found in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article aptly entitled, “UC Online Strives to Compete in an Era of Free Courses.” In discussing how the University of California system is failing at its attempt to develop an online educational strategy, we are informed that, “Online education was going to revolutionize the University of California system, drawing thousands to the selective institution's online courses and bringing in new revenue to help allay budget cuts. That was the pitch for UC Online, started two years ago with the belief that millions in seed money could easily be raised from foundations or other private sources to get the bold effort off the ground. But UC Online now appears to be struggling, even as other highly selective colleges rush to offer their courses online at no charge (and, unlike the University of California, with no credit).” In the case of the UC system, the move to online courses was seen as a way of dealing with devastating state budget cuts, but after pouring several millions of dollars into this project, the system has still not found a way to cash in on its digital panacea.

Not only has the UC system failed to make money on its online initiative, but we learn that they have actually lost millions: “University of California officials failed to rustle up those private donations and were forced to take out a $6.9-million loan from the system's Office of the President last year to prop up the effort, with strong opposition from faculty members who did not want university money used for the project.” Like so many other institutions of higher education, the faculty are here pitted against an administration that is spending millions on an online initiative while traditional courses are being eliminated and class sizes are being expanded. Instead of using scarce resources to improve the quality of undergraduate instruction, the UC is trying to get non-university students to take expensive online courses: “It needs to attract at least 3,000 non-UC students this year and add 1,000 more each year until it reaches 7,000 non-UC students to pay back its loan on time, said DoQuyen Tran-Taylor, project manager for UC Online.” In other words, as UC students pay more for less education, non-UC students are being recruited to repay the debt of a struggling online project.

The Chronicle points out that one reason why the UC initiative may be failing is that it cannot compete with the elite universities, which are giving their courses away for free: “The pivotal question is whether people will choose to shell out money for UC Online courses rather than for already-established online programs or one of the many free online courses, known as massive open online courses, or MOOC's, offered by a growing number of well-known colleges.” It appears that the answer to this question is that elite universities have successfully used MOOC’s to undermine the competition and prevent cash-strapped public schools from reaping the benefits of the digital gold rush.

Once again, I do not think that this is an intentional strategy, but it reflects the inability of some higher education institutions to consider the total ecology of their economies. Although the UC thought that private high-tech donors would seed their online program, the reality is that the big money has moved to private online ventures: “UC Online has raised only $748,000 in private financing for the project—through a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant by the Gates foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Private companies leading free online-education efforts, meanwhile, have been raking in investment cash. Coursera, for instance, boasts more than $22-million from investors.” In this new form of privatization, private companies are funneling their money to private institutions because they see a much higher potential for large profits; meanwhile, public institutions are scrambling to find ways to monetize their online programs.

Returning to the University of California, we discover that as private seed money is drying up, the costs of developing an online program continue to escalate: “UC Online spent $4.6-million on developing the project in the 2011-12 academic year, and expects to spend about $7-million this year in additional development and marketing efforts, said Shelly Meron, a University of California spokeswoman. An 18-month contract with the course-management software company Blackboard took up a significant portion of that spending—$4.3-million . . .” Thus, at the same moment that the university is facing reduced state funding and swelling enrollments, money that could be used to hire more teachers or house more classes is being sent to a private company to develop online course infrastructure. One has to wonder why the UC system could not have developed its own open source course programs and why the administration is bent on pursuing this high-cost strategy.

On a positive note, the MOOC revolution may force universities to determine what value they actually deliver to students. Instead of joining a race to the bottom, universities like the UC system should defend the importance of the residential educational experience. Not only do students on our campuses learn how to live on their own and navigate through competing social interests, but universities remain one of the few places where our citizens can engage in deep and important conversations concerning the most important aspects of their lives. In contrast to online courses, university classes force students to encounter new ideas and people; however, universities often undermine this experience by not providing a high-quality learning experience. The solution, then, is not to turn to a lower form of social interaction and instruction; instead our universities have to prove their worth by recommitting themselves to undergraduate education.

In short, instead of shifting their resources and attention to a fantasized digital cure, our universities need to focus on providing high-quality instruction to undergraduates. Furthermore, in place of building new entertainment centers and food courts for students, universities should hire more full-time faculty to provide effective in-person learning environments. A real race to the top would mean that we start to engage students in a meaningful life offline and online. As the elite private universities tell the masses that they can settle for an inferior educational experience, our public universities must push for high-quality higher education for all.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

We Won the Battle, Now the War

As Democrats celebrate their hard-earned victories, now is not the time to let down our guard. In the next couple of weeks, there will be tremendous pressure for President Obama to sign a very bad deal. He will be told that the only way he can avoid extending the Bush Tax cuts for the wealthy is if he agrees to severe cuts to social security, Medicaid, and Medicare. He will also be pressured to reduce the scheduled cuts to the defense budget, and thus, he will be asked to repeat Bill Clinton’s famous triangulation that brought us welfare reform, Wall Street deregulation, and NAFTA.

President Obama has already shown that he would go for the “Grand Bargain,” and after his electoral victory, he may sign off on a deal that will accomplish some of the most desired goals of the Republican party. To fight this quick move to the Right, go to:

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On the Props: Education Instead of Incarceration

This November 6th, California voters will have the opportunity to make some important choices. One vital decision regards the future of education in the Golden State and another related issue concerns the high cost of the prison-industrial complex. According to the recent report “Winners and Losers: Corrections and Higher Education in California” by California Common Cause: “After adjusting for inflation, higher education in 2011 received 13% less State funding than it did in 1980. Corrections, on the other hand, expanded its share of the State’s General Fund by 436%.” These statistics mean that not only are we spending more money incarcerating our citizens than educating them in public higher education, but the general defunding of all levels of education has pushed more people into the criminal justice system.

This movement of state funds from schools to prisons is the direct result of two previous decisions by Californian voters; the first concerns Prop 13 and the loss of needed tax revenue for schools, and the other is the Three Strikes law that has rapidly increased the number of prisoners in this state. Luckily, there are three important ballot propositions that can start to reverse both of these trends.
Prop 30 will help to close the state budget deficit as it sends up to $9 billion a year to K-12 and higher education. Meanwhile, Prop 36 revises the Three Strike law and Prop 34 repeals the death penalty. In the case of Prop 36, the new law would stop the costly and odious practice of counting minor offenses as the third strike against offending individuals and thus would reduce the number of people receiving life sentences in California. Since it now costs more money to imprison people than to send them to college, by reducing the number of life sentences, we can free up money for higher education. Likewise, through the repeal of the death penalty, California can reduce the high cost of maintaining prisoners on death row.

It is important to stress that as our prisons have become full of people of color arrested for minor offenses and drug charges, the schools and colleges serving brown and black students have been underfunded and understaffed. These trends can only be turned around if Californian voters reverse their previous bad decisions.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What Jerry Brown is Really Thinking

The LA Times Blog has a long unedited, monologue by Governor Jerry Brown that gives a great deal of insight into this complicated figure. In terms of the University of California, one issue that is discussed is why he has not appointed three regents. Brown has the following to say on this important topic: “I haven’t appointed anyone to the regents yet. Well, who should I appoint? That’s a good question. What are they going to do? I’ve appointed some people to the Cal State and I’ve appointed some interesting people on the state board and I’m looking, but what impact does that make? If you want to make change, can the state board make an impact? Can the Cal State make an impact? Things are very conservative in how they run. Before when I used to go to the regents, I’d go armed and I was attacking. But it’s totally marginal. You can’t influence ... So now it takes more time, you’ve got to be more subtle, you need more allies. You need a long-term game plan.” In short, Brown seems to be saying that he has not appointed anyone since the board is so conservative or insulated from any influence, including the influence of the governor.

Brown adds that it is hard to make any choices because of the need to cater to so many interest groups means that the effects are always watered down: “I also know these boards are not affected by one or two people, so there’s no rush. There are a lot of people I know. Blum I know, the lady who’se the president, she was the president of one of the movie studios. They’ve got people there. But I’m looking for different … But I know that three appointments can’t make (a difference). It really takes ten. But by the time you get to ten, and you listen to this group and that group, and I gotta take care of that and you have diversity and this influence person – by the time you get your ten people, they’re so different that you have no impact anyway. So this idea that you can influence by your appointees, you have to take care of all your various constituencies and then you end up replicating what is. And that’s why things don’t change very much. . . If you want to do something that you know is good but is different, the last place you’re going to get it done is UC. The second to last place you’re going to get it done is Cal State. And the place more likely would be the community colleges, because they’re more flexible.”

Not only does the governor think that appointing three new regents might have no real effect, but he also wonders if ten new regents would change anything.
It should be clear that someone has to convince the governor about the importance of having regents who actually know about universities and higher education. However, Brown does not seem motivated to change things even though he realizes that there are many problems with the current higher ed system.

Part of Brown’s reluctance to appoint new UC regents can be traced to his post-ideological view of government: “you have one group that says the answer is to see government as the problem and block it and try to reduce it as much as you can. And the other says the problem is the accumulation of capital and the power of corporations and what we need to do is strenghthen the hand of government and make it more intrusive, more invasive and more impactful so as to achieve more well being. And that’s really the choice…” By tying the liberal view of government to the idea that government is perceived as being intrusive and invasive, Brown shows how many contemporary Democrats have bought into the conservative demonization of “big Government.”

Yet, Brown is also aware of how misinformed citizens are about the ways governments spend their money: “What makes the choice hard is there is this zone of government waste which I have seen polling suggest people think is 40 percnet. Well, 40 perent of a 90 billion general fund is 36 billion. So there is a 36 billion dollar bank of waste that the public wants us to spend before we cut universities, elderly, roads police, all other stuff. Because of that relatively widespread belief … people say why should I pay for a tax even though it is not on me or it is very little when we have this bank we can go to. Go spend the waste bank. And the problem is the waste bank is not available. It’s window is not open in a way that I can access.” From his pragmatic perspective, Governor Brown realizes that people think there is a huge pool of hidden or wasted resources, which the government can use if it wants to.

While Brown knows that the populace is misinformed, he does not appear to be willing to use his position to educate the people of California and let them know the truth about the state’s finances. Just as in the case of the University of California, this is where we need real, bold leadership to clarify the truth and to propose an effective alternative. At one point, in this interview, he does show a recognition about some of the problems facing the university, but he soon backs away by returning to the issue of governmental waste: “I think they can do it more efficiently at the university. I’ve got a whole book showing how the university is spending money it doesn’t have to. Certain kinds of research, sports, gardeners, a lot of things. But there isn’t a waste bank of 36 billion in California. Not even close.” This is a strange free association: the governor jumps from discussing how the university spends its money to the question of perceived government waste as if the two are the same thing. He appears to be saying that since rumors of government waste are wrong, then the analysis of how universities spend money on expensive side-projects must also be wrong.

In another discussion of university spending, Brown repeats his conflicted sense of spending and waste: “Does a chancellor need 350,000? 500,000? I don’t think you do. Well is that a waste? Well if you paying more than you need, it is a waste. But then they say the market is that and if we don’t pay it, we don’t get it.” While Brown clearly sees the problem with paying administrators excessive salaries, he also entertains the university’s claim that they can only attract and retain excellent people by offering them market value. What Brown does not ask here is why it is only star administrators who are deemed worthy of market-based salaries. Like so many contemporary Democrats, Brown has internalized both the free market rhetoric of the Right and the liberal discourse of a meritocracy where only the elites are entitled to a good wage.

In some ways, Brown is too aware of how some people view the government, and his concern for these views limits his political vision: “Everywhere you go human institutions have flaws. But here is the relevant point here: government is perceived as unique in the flaws that it has. And there is a certain hostility. Government has become the object people can look to as the source of our suffering and our problems and in that context it is hard to get people to say gee give more money to this entity you see as the cause of suffering or dysfunction.” While it is clear that the forty-year effort of the Republicans to demonize the government has been very effective, shouldn’t someone like Governor Brown work to counter this narrative?

It is clear that Brown is plagued by his acute awareness of how competing interests block any real change in politics: “There is no procedural quick fix…We don’t live in some immaculate world with no stain of interest. Everybody is interested. ..Everybody looks to see how the rules favor their interest. So there is no neutral grouping here. Not like constitutional convention of our founding fathers. We have a constitution. We have a legislature. We have tens of thousands of laws and practices. You can only make a few changes. Any change you make, if you go one way maybe trial lawyers like it. If you go one way, maybe insurance companies and doctors like it. There is no quick easy big fix. It is incremental. Step by step.” Perhaps this pragmatic approach is appropriate for “normal” times, but in our current crisis, we need something on the order of FDR’s New Deal to really make a difference.

In one of his most telling free associations, Brown discusses his central thinking about education: “One thing, well it’s not like, for example, lets take STAR tests. Steinberg doesn’t like it. Wants to reduce the STAR test. So in one way I like the STAR test because the kids gotta know arithmetic, they have to know how to write, they gotta know some English, they have to know science. So that’s somewhat mechanical. But on the other hand, every individual has different interests. I think it’s important that people go to school and they learn history, they learn philosophy, they learn music. They don’t get trained, but they get exposed to a much bigger world. So this is an issue: How much should be training, lockstep, standardization, fill in the blank and anyone who deviates from that is bad. There’s a bit of that coming out of Washington. On the other hand if you’re so lax and you just chit-chat in class, that’s bad too.” Once again, the governor is conflicted over the main competing narratives that surround education in the United States. While he is rightly critical of standardized tests and standardized teaching, he also wants to make sure that students learn the basics and that teachers do not spend their time simply free associating in class.

This conflicted view of education is matched with Brown’s awareness of how learning and teaching involve so much more than memorizing and testing: “I had a teacher, Mr. McCurdy he later joined the Jesuits. One of his questions on one of our exams was, I want you to write your impression of a green leaf. OK. I wrote something pretty banal. And I’ve been thinking every time I walk out here and I look at these green leaves, what’s my impression? Am I just dead? What can I feel? So he created a thought about imagination, impression, you can’t put that on a STAR test.” Here, Brown shows himself to be a deep and creative thinker who has profited from a creative and independent teacher.

Perhaps what we learn from this gubernatorial free association is that the governor is a non-ideological politician who is both open to competing discourses and crippled by his awareness. We also know from the way that students and unions pushed his tax initiative in a much more progressive direction that collective action can promote positive social change. It is clear that if we want something to change in this state, we will have to be the motivating force.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Regents Retreat

One of the most remarkable aspects of the recent regents’ discussion of the future of the university was the lack of discussion of the quality of instruction. While there was some statements that students are still happy with their education and the university is doing a good job at graduating students in a timely fashion, the quality of education was rarely brought up. Instead, the main focus was on how the UC can continue to do what it is doing by moving money around and engaging in some creative financing.

Some possible solutions suggested are to sell off parking and lease it back and reduce the university’s support for healthcare for its employees. There is also the idea to increase nonresident enrollments significantly and to charge different tuition rates for different degrees. The most creative and threatening suggestion was “Eliminate some or all State funding for a few campuses and socialize savings to others, resulting in no restrictions on tuition or nonresident enrollment for campuses with reduced State funding.” The final suggestion means total privatization for the elite campuses, while the other campuses are left to fight over diminished state funds. In reality, the current policies of letting campuses keep their tuition dollars and distributing state funds according to a formula that favors the campuses with medical students and doctoral students moves the UC in the direction of the privatization for the elite campuses and socialization for others model.

While the regents stressed the decreases in state funds, we have recently learned that UC payroll has gone up 29% in the last six years, so the loss of public support has been coupled with a major expansion of the university, especially in the medical area. In fact, there are now many more high-paid employees, but there are fewer faculty and more students. According to the retreat PowerPoint, the state now funds just 11% of the budget, but 97% of the faculty are supported by core funds. This would appear to mean that faculty now are only supported by state funds and tuition, which begs the question of where does all of the money generated from grants, endowments, medical services, and auxiliaries go?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pension Politics

It looks like the legislature and the governor are close to a deal on pensions. While they have decided to exclude the University of California from the reforms, everyone inside and outside of the UC system should be concerned about the politics behind this move to rein in public pensions. First of all, one of the main motivations to make this deal now is that many Democrats feel that the best way to coax voters to support the governor’s tax initiative is to show citizens that the Dems are serious about controlling future governmental expenditures. Also, many Democrats in the legislature believe that they can win a super-majority in both houses, and so they are going after seats in swing districts.

However, there are several broad issues concerning this pension reform that we should consider. First of all, what does it say about unions and the Democratic party when they lead the way in reducing benefits for future workers. In the proposed new system, many workers will have a hard time waiting until 65-67 to retire, and the change in retirement age will reduce their retirement checks by a large amount (during a time when retiree healthcare costs will continue to increase). While it looks like the Dems are being responsible, who is protecting the most vulnerable workers? Another major problem is that the deal undermines collective bargaining and the ability of workers to trade wage increases for retirement security.

What the current discussion of pension reform fails to mention is that the major cause for the underfunding of pension plans is investment losses, and this reform puts all of the blame on the cost of benefits. What we need is real Wall Street reform, which would protect pension funds against huge losses. It also does not help that the Fed is keeping interest rates so low that pension funds have to move almost all of their money from bonds to stocks and other higher risk asset classes. Moreover, the recent Libor scandal shows that pension funds have lost significant value because banks have manipulated interest rates.

History may remember this period as a time when all of the major liberal institutions—unions, the Democratic party, and public employees—accomplished the goals of the conservative revolution. While it may seem that we are only trying to show the public that we are fair and rational, we are actually feeding the Romney-Ryan rhetoric that the only solutions to our problems is to cut the benefits of the next generation.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The state of UC

The stakes have gone up for Prop 30, the governor's tax initiative, which will cost the UC $375 million in state funding if it does not pass. In turn, the UC will discuss at the next regents meeting a plan to raise tuition by 20% in case the voters do not support the proposition. It should be clear to the citizens of California that a small tax increase will help protect higher education in California; however, the proposition is only polling at 52%.

A related issue is how the UC spends the money it does get from the state. As last year's state audit showed, state funds are distributed to the campuses on an unequal basis, and the result is that the smaller campuses without medical schools and law schools are poorly funded. Also, the campuses with the highest number of under-represented minority students receive the lowest funding.

In order to correct this problem of unequal funding, a task force has been working on increasing campus equality, but they have run up against several hurdles. First of all, UCOP refuses to provide an estimate of how much it costs to educate undergraduates versus graduates versus medical students. Instead, they have helped to develop a weighted system where each resident undergraduate and masters level student counts as 1, each doctoral student counts as 2.5 and each medical student counts as 5. The current level of state funding per campus is then divided by the student enrollment level for each of these student groups. Even when we take into account the fact that some campuses have more medical and doctoral students, there is still an uneven distribution of funds.

The major problem with this whole methodology is that it does not prevent some campuses from simply increasing their number of highly funded medical and doctoral students. Moreover, campuses are now able to keep their tuition dollars, and the same campuses with medical centers and/or high levels of doctoral students are also the ones with the highest number of out-of-state students. The end result will thus be that rich campuses will get richer, while the poor campuses will get poorer.

While the task force does recommend a slow process of increasing the funding of some of the campuses to keep up with the weighted average of UCLA per student funding, the task force failed to justify its calculation of the weighted averages. Since no one is even trying to estimate how much it actually costs to educate different types of students, it is unclear how the task force is making its calculations. While it is very possible that we will see a growing inequality of funding among the campuses, it is not clear that the campuses with more funding will increase their support for undergraduate education. For example, if a campus brings in more medical and doctoral students to increase their share of state funding, and these students cost much more to educate than the assumed weighted averages represent, then the wealthier campuses will have to continue the process of using undergraduate tuition to subsidize expensive graduate and professional program. Until UCOP decides to actually estimate the actual cost of education, all of the decision makers will be making important choices in the dark.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Student Loan Debt Collectors

According to a report from the National Consumer Law Center, “The U.S. Department of Education (the Department) relies on an increasing number of private contractors to collect the approximately $67 billion in defaulted federal student loan debt.” Moreover, not only is the government on the hook for an increasing number of student loan defaults, but it is paying outside collection agencies huge sums of money to collect these debts: “The Department paid contractors almost $1 billion in commissions in 2011.” Thus instead of providing free public higher education, the federal government is lending students huge amounts of money that they can never pay back, and the result is that the feds have to hire expensive private contractors to collect the cash.

One reason why the federal government spends so much on debt collectors is that these outside agencies receive bonuses for their aggressive handling of student debt: “using a metric called the Competitive Performance and Continuous Surveillance (CPCS) score. The percentage of dollars collected on federal student loan accounts determines the majority of a contractor’s CPCS score, with a maximum of 70 possible points. The second metric is Account Servicing Percentage which calculates the percent of federal student aid accounts awarded to the PCA that have activity as a result of the PCA’s efforts, either through litigation, an administrative resolution, or actual payments. The top performer for this metric will receive 20 points. Finally, PCAs may earn up to 10 points for their Administrative Resolution Percentage which tabulates how many federal student aid accounts the PCA referred back to the Department for a non‐cash administrative resolution (i.e. disability discharge, death of borrower, etc.).” In this system, outside agencies are given an incentive to harass students and force them to hand over all of their money to the collectors.

Furthermore, since these private agencies increase their earnings if they collect more from students, they do not pursue other forms of reconciliation, like writing down the principle or extending the payments. In fact, borrowers in default are subject to the government’s extraordinary collection powers that last a lifetime: “The collection agencies hold the keys to the borrower’s future because the government hires collection agencies not only to collect, but also to act as the front line “dispute resolution” entities for financially distressed borrowers.” In other words, the private collectors act as judge and jury, and they use the power of the national government to garnish wages and public benefits. This situation has gotten so bad that many people have had their social security checks garnished in order to pay back decades-old student loans. As a society, we have created a system of indentured student servitude as our tax dollars are used to pay profit-seeking loan collectors to further abuse former students.

Making matters worse, when people are late on their loan payments, they often are subjected to huge penalties that make it even harder for them to pay off their debt, which transforms them into prime targets for aggressive for-profit debt collectors. This problem will only worsen if Congress does not stop student loan interest rates from doubling next month.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How Higher Ed Tax Breaks Serve as Welfare for the Wealthy

As I wrote in a previous blog entry, we may be able to make all public higher ed free, if we just use all current available resources in a more efficient manner. One thing I discovered in my research is the way that tax breaks for higher ed have been used as a form of welfare for the wealthy. As shown in the study, “Moving On Up: How Tuition Tax Breaks Increasingly Favor the Upper-Middle Class,” what has been occurring is that help for poor students is being reduced as support for wealthier students is being increased: “From 1999 to 2009, the government spent $70 billion on tax breaks aimed at subsidizing higher education for families . . . about 13 percent, or $9.4 billion, of that total went to families making more than $100,000 a year. At the same time, only 11 percent went to the neediest families, those making less than $25,000. Families in the middle—those making between $25,000 and $99,999— received the lion’s share of the aid, taking in slightly more than three-quarters of the benefits.” While this research makes it sound like middle-class parents were getting most of the benefit of these tax breaks, we are later told that the movement of the funding has continued to shift to the wealthiest Americans: “nearly 83 percent of the higher education tax benefits distributed from 1999 to 2001 went to families earning less than $75,000 per year. No benefits went to those earning more than $100,000. By contrast, in the last three tax years alone, families making between $100,000 and $180,000 received nearly a quarter of the benefits. The share going to middle-income families sharply declined.” This tax system for higher education is a great example of how so many of our governmental policies end up subsidizing the wealthy as poor and middle-class citizens are left paying more and getting less.

If we made all public higher education free, not only could we do away with this unjust tax system, but we could also stop the movement of public funds to expensive private and for-profit universities and colleges. What people do not notice is that the use of financial aid and tax subsidies for individual students has resulted in a system where much of the governmental support for higher education ends up going to private institutions that cater to the super-rich or to low-achieving for-profit schools. In fact, during a 2012 Congressional investigation of for-profit colleges, it was discovered that up to a quarter of all federal Pell grant money is now going to these corporate schools that charge a high tuition and graduate very few students. What this investigation did not uncover, however, was the amount of state and federal tax breaks that go to support for-profit institutions.

While recent research has been done on how much the federal government has spent on tax deductions and credits for higher education, as far as I can tell, no one has examined how much states are spending on these tax breaks for colleges and universities. However, it is safe to estimate that the total subsidy by the states is at least the same as the total federal level of support ($40 billion) since many of the states have tax deductions that exceed the national tax breaks for tuition, and most states have tax-advantaged 529 college savings plans. For example, in New York state, the tuition tax credit goes up to $5,000 per year per student, and the tuition tax deduction is $10,000 for each eligible student. It is important to point out that tax deductions favor the wealthy since so many low-income families pay little if any federal income taxes.

One of the great secrets in higher education funding is the role played by 529 College Savings Plans: “In 2000 a total of $2.6 billion was invested in 529 plans. This grew to $14 billion in 2001 and more than $92 billion in mid-2006. The student aid resource projects that total investment in 529 plans will reach $175 billion to $250 billion by 2010, with a total of 10 million to 15 million accounts opened.” Not only do state governments lose billions of dollars in tax revenue each year due to these 529 plans, but the wealthy have figured out how to use these plans as all-purpose tax shelters. For example, if a couple puts $26,000 a year for each child into account, and then decides later to use the money to buy a yacht, only the investment gains will be assessed a 10% penalty and taxed as income. Also, contributions made to a 529 are removed from a family's estate, and 529 plan owners can name a successor to the account when they die, which enables the plans to shelter money for multiple generations.

One way that wealthy people use these accounts to avoid paying taxes is by giving each other gifts. In this structure, gift taxes can be avoided if contributions into the plans over a five-year period do not exceed $65,000 for single taxpayers and $130,000 for married couples. Clearly, it is only the wealthiest Americans who are able to profit from this type of plan. In fact, according to a recent Department of the Treasury report, "Currently there are effectively no limits on Section 529 account balances. Because 43 states offer plans open to residents in other states, a beneficiary can have accounts in as many as 44 states, each state with a limit exceeding $224,465." It is obvious that only wealthy people can afford to save and invest this type of money. Moreover, the same study of 529 plans details how the richest families are using these plans for tax shelters: "data from the 2007 Survey of Consumer Finance found that among households in the top five percent of income — average income, $548,000 per year — those with education savings plans held an average balance of $106,250. That’s more than triple the average for households in the 90th-95th percentile, more than ten times the balance for the 50th-75th percentile, etc. Second, among households in Kansas who took a state income tax deduction for 529 contributions, the average deduction for households making over $250,000 per year was $10,323. For those in the $100K-$250K range it was less than $5,000, for everyone else, less than $3,000.” As this federal government report indicates, 529 plans have now become an effective way to subsidize wealthy people; meanwhile, states are forced to cut their higher education budgets due to their lack of tax revenue.

If we took all of the state and federal money that is lost each year due to these tax credits, deductions, and shelters, we could make public higher education free for millions of Americans; however, the tax code is rigged to provide aid to wealthy people, and one side-effect of this system is that private universities are able to charge higher tuition because they know that the parents of many of the incoming students will only pay a fraction of the full price due to merit aid, institutional aid, and tax breaks. Furthermore, once the private universities increase their tuition, they raise the bar for everyone else, and this makes tuition increases at public universities appear to be more tolerable. Furthermore, since the top public universities compete with the top private universities for star faculty and administrators, the more the privates are able to increase their tuition, the more the public institutions have to pay their star faculty.

To contain the rising tuition at private universities and the subsidization of high-cost, low-value for-profit schools, the government needs to move away from the current emphasis on tax breaks and tax shelters, and this can be done in part by making all public higher education free. Instead of relying on a mix of financial aid, institutional aid, tax subsidies, and grants, direct funding for public institutions could give the government a way to control costs at both public and private universities and colleges. The federal government could also require states to maintain their funding for public institutions in return for increased federal support, and once we stabilize funding and make higher education free, then we can eliminate the need for so many students and institutions to go into debt.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

UC, the State, and the Post-Stimulus Blues

In his End this Depression Now!, Paul Krugman argues that the best way to get the U.S. economy out of its current slump is for the federal government to provide direct support to the states to stop the loss of public workers. Krugman and others have pointed out that while there has been an increase in private sector employment, there are about two million public sectors workers who have lost their jobs or about to lose their jobs. These job losses not only depress consumer demand, but they also hurt state revenues.

In the case of California, Governor Brown’s latest revised austerity budget calls for an additional reduction of the UC budget of $38 million with another $250 million cut if his tax initiative does not pass in November. In the best case scenario, the UC will receive $2.5 billion in state funds, and if the tax initiative does not pass, the figure goes down to $2.2 billion, which means we are down $1 billion from the funding level of 2007-8.

While some may say that we have faced bigger cuts in the past, what few people understand is that a lot of the past state reductions were replaced by federal stimulus money, which is now all gone. As I pointed out a couple of years ago, when the UC administration called for furloughs and layoffs, it often failed to mention that the state reductions were being replaced by federal dollars; however, now, the UC is really struggling with increased costs and decreased revenue, and tuition increases and out-of-state students can only fill part of the hole.

Recently, I have shown how we could fund free public higher education, and while this is a long-term goal, we have to also think about the short-term and the medium term. Right now, we are pushing to increase UC funding to stop tuition increases, but we will have to make our arguments during a time when the poor and the needy are facing tremendous cuts. One possible solution is for the UC to lend the state a large amount of money on the condition that the state increases UC funding. Another medium-term solution is to either push for a new initiative guaranteeing higher ed funding, like the one that that exists for K-14, or to tie a reduction of prison spending to an increase in higher ed funding (if we got rid of the three strike rule and we decriminalized drugs, we could free up money to be spent on our universities and colleges).

What should be clear is that the current political class is not proposing any comprehensive solutions, and instead, we are suffering from a thousand cuts. What we need to do is to organize around a set of propositions that would modernize our tax system and replace spending on incarceration with funding for instruction while controlling healthcare costs and improving the quality of public services. In short, we have to formulate a workable program that will inspire people to counter the agenda of the ruling class.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How to Make All Public Higher Ed Free in America (Version 2)

Flagship public universities across the nation are asking for more autonomy so that they can increase tuition and set their own enrollment targets. Meanwhile, student loan debt has surpassed a trillion dollars as states continue to cut their support for higher education. It is clear that the funding model for public higher education in America is broken, but no one appears to be coming up with a coherent plan to address the problem.

In my research for my upcoming book, I have discovered that we could make all public higher education free in America if we just used our current resources in a more coordinated way. Looking at higher education enrollment patterns in 2009-10, we find that 6.4 million full-time equivalent undergraduate students were enrolled at public universities and 4.3 million were enrolled in community colleges. In the same year, the average cost of tuition, room, and board for undergraduates at public four-year institutions was $14,870, and for 2-year public colleges, it was $7,629. If we multiply the number of students in each segment of public higher education by the average total cost, we discover that the price for making all public higher education free was $127 billion in 2009-10.

While $127 billion seems like a large figure, we need to remember that in 2010, the federal government spent $35 billion on Pell grants and $105 billion in new student loans, while the states spent $10 billion on financial aid. Furthermore, looking at various tax breaks for higher education, we can add billions to the public support for universities and colleges.

Here is a list of some of the current federal tax breaks and how much each one cost in 2010 (this list does not include state tax breaks): student loan interest rate exemption ($1.4 billion), the exclusion of employer-provided educational assistance ($1.1 billion), exclusion of interest on student-loan bonds ($0.6 billion), exclusion of scholarship and fellowship income ($3.0 billion), exclusion of tax on earnings of qualified tuition programs: savings account programs ($0.6 billion), the HOPE tax credit ($5.4 billion), the Lifetime Learning tax credit ($5.5 billion), parental personal exemption for students age 19 or over ($3.4 billion), state prepaid tuition plans ($1.75 billion), American Opportunity Tax Credit ($14.4 billion), and part of the deductibility of charitable contributions (education) ($4.9 billion).

To the almost $40 billion of federal tax breaks listed above, we also need to add the numerous state tax subsidies; in fact, many states offer tax credits and deductions that exceed the federal tax breaks. Moreover, there is currently over $100 billion in 529 College Savings Plans, and if we made all public higher education free, we could do away with these tax shelters, which mostly benefit the wealthiest families.

When we add the cost of tax breaks to the current level of state and federal financial aid for higher education, not only could the government pay for the full cost of undergraduate education for public universities and community colleges, but we could also make most of graduate education free at these institutions.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Understanding Financial Aid: Not Easy

I have always wanted to know what it means when UC says that students would not have to pay tuition if their parents made less than $80,000 a year. So I went to the UCLA financial aid estimator, and I punched in a few variables, and here is what I found.

In the case of a family of four with an income of $75,000, here is what we get: Parent Contribution:
Estimated Award Letter
Grant Award:
Self Help Award:
Family Help Award:

Estimated Total Price of Attendance
University Fees
Room and Board
Books and Supplies
Health Insurance
Loan Fees
Total Cost of Attendance:

So, the first thing you might want to know is what are “Self Help” and “Family Help” awards. I looked all over the web site and several other sites, and I could not find any definition of these categories. I then called the UCLA financial aid office, and after waiting several minutes on hold, I finally got a live voice, but this voice could not answer my questions, and so I was transferred to a supervisor. When I asked him what these terms meant, he said he thinks “self help award” refers to student loans and work-study aid, but he had never heard of a “family help award.” I told him that it is on his web site, but he responded that the federal government is requiring the university to put this information online, but they are not responsible for its content.

I am guessing that the family help award is a loan, but I really don’t know; however, what I do know is that while everyone talks about the high cost of tuition, the biggest driver of costs and student debt is housing and related expenses. It turns out that this issue tracks national data. In 1990-91, total tuition, fees, room and board at public universities averaged $5,585, and in 2009-10, this cost rose to $16,712, which represents an increase of $11,127. Meanwhile for community colleges, the total cost in 1990-91 was $3,467, and in 2009-10, it went to $7,703 for an increase of $3,403. During the same period, average tuition and fees for public universities rose from $2,159 to $8,123 for an increase of $5,964, while for community colleges tuition and fees went from $824 to $2,285 for a total increase of $1,461. This means that the biggest cost increases for public higher education concern room and board, but few people ever discuss this fact.

Next Week I plan to return to my last blog on how to make all public higher education free. I had to take it down because there was an error in my analysis.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Ugly Face of Austerity: Pepper Spraying the Other

The image of a UC police officer using a weapon with indifference on prone students may become the iconic image of the Age of Austerity. This scene, which went viral on the Internet, tells us much about our current political and economic moment: young people protesting the decreased support from the state are treated with brutality and indifference.

In reading the recently released report on the UC pepper spraying "incident," I was struck by two reoccurring themes: the university administrators and police wanted to see the student protesters as outside elements, and they sought to protect their imagined daughters from sex. This underlying paranoid fantasy is brought to the surface in several moments in the report. For instance, "The administration did not consider the Occupy movement encampment to be a conventional campus protest. The Leadership Team appeared to perceive it as a vehicle through which non-affiliates might enter the campus and endanger students." We can read the term "non-affiliates" as shorthand for dangerous, unspecified Others, and as the report relates, the central irrational fear of the administration appeared to be that these dangerous Others would violate “young girls”: "“We were worried at the time about that [nonaffiliates] because the issues from Oakland were in the news and the use of drugs and sex and other things, and you know here we have very young students . . . we were worried especially about having very young girls and other students with older people who come from the outside without any knowledge of their record . . . if anything happens to any student while we’re in violation of policy, it’s a very tough thing to overcome.” Representing college students as "young girls" and protesters as dangerous sexualized Others serves to justify a violent reaction by a protective, paternalistic institution.

Of course, this cultural fantasy of the unknown Other violating “young girls” was often used in the American South to justify the lynching of African Americans because of their threat to white female purity. In fact the sexualization of Others has historically helped Christian invaders to justify brutalizing and dehumanizing native people; however, if you think I am reading too much into the passage from the report cited above, let us ponder the following statement: "Vice Chancellor Meyer expressed similar concerns in an interview conducted on Dec. 7. He explained, “our context at the time was seeing what’s happening in the City of Oakland, seeing what’s happening in other municipalities across the country, and not
being able to see a scenario where [a UC Davis Occupation] ends well . . . Do we lose control and have non-affiliates become part of an encampment? So my fear is a longterm occupation with a number of tents where we have an undergraduate student and a non-affiliate and there’s an incident. And then I’m reporting to a parent that a nonaffiliate has done this unthinkable act with your daughter, and how could we let that happen?”" Once again, in this cultural fantasy, the administration sees itself as protecting the purity of its daughters by eliminating the threat posed by a violating Other.

Why it is important to understand this underlying fantasy is that it helps us to understand how the administration could see its own students as threatening outsiders intent on corrupting their own precious purity. From this perspective, Lt. Pike was not simply protecting public safety; rather, he was following the administration's lead by trying to eliminate the Other from the space of the same. I use these abstract terms to point to the underlying psychology behind austerity politics in California: Just as the Other (brown and black students) started to enter into our higher education system, a tax revolt resulted in the defunding of public universities. Moreover, as our public schools become increasingly self-segregated, austerity becomes color-coded. Older and Whiter Californians simply do not want to share their wealth in order to support the education of young people of color.

While we have been socialized not to talk about race and to keep our prejudices indirect and coded, it is clear that even though the police at UC Davis knew they were looking at UC Davis students, what they saw were wild outsiders threatening to violate their daughters. Only serious and committed education can help us to overcome these collective cultural fantasies that at once dehumanize some students and purify others.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The UC Budget and the Damage Done

At the last UC Regents meeting, a discussion of the UC budget outlines the following evidence of the deterioration of educational quality in the UC system:

• At UC Riverside, they will walk onto a campus where enrollment has grown in the last three years by nearly 3,000 students – many of them the first in their families ever to attend college – while at the same time the number of faculty has been reduced by five percent. The result: class sizes have grown by 33 percent. Introductory physics classes that used to average 95 students have exploded in size in three years to 573 students.

• At UC Santa Cruz, students will be provided with 84 fewer course offerings and their class sizes will have spiked 33 percent. The student-faculty ratio has exploded by nearly 15 percent, and the campus lacks funding for 125 faculty FTE – 14 percent of its faculty positions. Yet for all the cuts, the campus still faces a daunting $38 million budget gap.

• UC Santa Barbara has over 1,000 more students than it did three years ago, but the number of staff has declined by 450 (nearly 11 percent) during that time, and the faculty has remained the same size. The results are fewer student services, larger classes and discussion sections, and reductions and eliminations in many programs.

• And across the system, pension costs alone will rise to $1.8 billion annually in the next five years – an expense that campuses did not have to shoulder as recently as three years ago. If there is no increase in either State funds or tuition during this time, campuses will have to find the equivalent of funding for 7,000 staff or 3,900 faculty to fund this expense alone.

In other words, classes are getting bigger, courses are being cut, the number of faculty has been reduced, but the number of students has gone up. Moreover, the campuses are about to be hit with major pension costs, and it is unclear whether the state budget will provide any significant funding for the UC system.

These internal budget cuts not only mean a shortchanging of undergraduate instruction, but they also result in a longer time to degree, which in itself restricts access and reduces affordability.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Meeting at the White House, the State Tax Initiative, and the UC Regents

On March 27th, I made a presentation at the White House on how to control tuitin increases at American research universities. My first major point was that any attempt to contain tuition at public universities has to deal with state budget cuts for higher ed. I was told that the administration is aware of this issue, and they have been meeting with the presidents of several public universities to come up with a way to motivate states to stabilize higher ed funding.

My second major point was that while President Obama has been stressing affordability and access, he also has to focus on the quality of instruction. To make this point, I discussed how universities have been increasing the sizes of their classes and their dependence on under-supported non-tenure-track faculty to drive down the costs of instruction; meanwhile, the cost of administration, athletics, and construction has continued to increase. As I argue in my forthcoming book, the only way to control costs in higher education is to focus on providing quality instruction and research, but there are no incentives to make universities concentrate on their core missions.

One possible way of changing how universities spend their funds is to rank and rate universities based, in part, on the percentage of their budget that they spend on direct instructional costs (faculty salaries and benefits). I suggested to the administration that they add to their new College Scorecard statistics on how much of a university’s budget is spent on direct instructional costs and what percentage of their student credit hours are taught by full-time faculty. If universities had to report on these factors, they would need to commit more attention and funding to their core mission.

We also discussed President Obama’s fight to stop student loan interest rates from doubling this summer. I mentioned that in California, we are trying to freeze tuition by increasing the taxes on the wealthy, but we still need the federal government to combine the current emphasis on access and affordability with a focus on educational quality. Moreover, in the case of the UC system, it is clear that we have to force the governor and the legislature to dedicate new tax revenue to higher education. In fact, at the recent Regents meeting, several of the regents said that they do not think they can support the governor’s tax initiative if it does not dedicate funds directly to the UC in order to prevent another tuition increase. I have been meeting with people from the governor’s office and key legislators to push for a major increase in UC funding, but so far, no one has committed to guaranteeing UC funding and tying the higher education budget to the new tax initiative. We all need to work together now to push the governor and the legislature to provide enough funding to roll back recent tuition increases.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The New Tax Initiative and UC Funding

There have been a few big changes on the tax initiative front the last few days. As many of you might know, a deal has been made to combine the Millionaire’s Tax and the Governor’s tax initiative. I will list the details of the new initiative below, and in many ways, it is an improvement over the governor's initial proposal, but unlike the Millionaire's Tax, it does not dedicate revenue for higher education. So we are currently meeting with legislators to put new language into the state budget to dedicate funds to higher ed. It is important to stress that we were told by legislators that even if the Millionaire's Tax provided money for higher ed, the legislature would still have to reduce higher ed funding to balance the budget, so we think the new initiative might turn out to be better for the UC system. We will now have to work together to push the legislature and the governor to re-fund higher ed.

We met with the governor’s budget people and several legislators on March 19th to push for budget language that would increase transparency and funding for the UC system. If all goes well, tuition will be frozen for three years, and the state will increase its contribution to the UC system by at least 4% each year.

Here’s a description of the new initiative:

a. 1% increase on incomes of $250,000 ($500,000 for couples). No change from Governor’s initiative.
b. 2% increase on incomes of $300,000 ($600,000 for couples). Governor’s initiative was 1.5%.
c. 3% increase on incomes of $500,000 ($1 million for couples). Governor’s initiative was 2%.
d. These tax increases remain in place for 7 years. Governor’s initiative was 5 years.
2. SALES TAX: increase ¼ cent (Governor’s was ½ cent). Same expiration as the Governor’s.
3. STRUCTURE: The measure will be based on the Governor’s initiative structure, with the changes noted in #1 and #2 above.
4. REVENUES (NOTE: THESE ESTIMATES ARE PRELIMINARY): This new measure will generate about $9 billion for the 2012-13 budget (up from the $6.9 billion in the Governor’s initiative).

Also, there will be additional comments in statements from the principals about re-investing in higher education as a priority. (Not to mention the fact that the new measure will generate higher revenues.)

We need to pressure the legislature and governor to dedicate funds to higher education in the May Revise budget.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Off-Scale Salaries and the Privatization of the University

While most studies of university compensation look at average salaries, I have stressed that we need to examine wage inequalities. For instance, in the case of UC senate faculty, we have seen a growing disparity between the top earners and everyone else. A recent study of faculty compensation helps us to see that a major cause for this increased disparity is the use of off-scale salaries, which are usually negotiated between an administrator and an individual faculty member. This privatizing system not only creates a system of competing free agents, but it also decreases transparency by circumventing the peer review process.

The Academic Council’s report shows how the use of off-scale salaries varies from campus to campus; here is the percentage of professors with off-scale salaries on each campus: Merced 88%; UCLA 80%; Santa Cruz 73%; Berkeley 72%; Irvine 66%; Santa Barbara 66%; San Diego 64%; Riverside 59%; and Davis 52%. The fact that Merced is so high could point to the recent move to hire most professors off scale. Currently, in the system, “91% of assistant professors are hired off-scale, 94% of associate professors, and 80% of full professors. On average, 89% of new hires were off-scale.”

While some argue that this need for off-scale salaries is due to the faulty nature of the current professorial salary scale, others believe that by keeping the scale low, administrators and individual faculty members are able to justify making secret, private deals. In response to these issues, the Academic Council wants to create a new system, which would: “Maintain funding for merit actions based on existing merit and CAP review processes, such that faculty who advance to a new rank and/or step receive a new salary at least equal to the average of campus colleagues at the same rank and step.” Thus, instead of relying on off-scale salary negotiations, this new system would combine the current merit system with a new way of making sure that all faculty of the same rank would have similar salaries.

The major problem with this good proposal is that it is hard to imagine faculty members and administrators moving away from a system of private negotiations. Like the general economy, everyone thinks they are going to be the exception, so no one wants a more equal system. In other words, even the people who do not receive star salaries believe in the star system because they imagine that someday they will also be stars. So if this new compensation structure did go in effect, what would probably happen is that a majority of faculty would still receive off-scale increases, which would result in raising the average salaries for each rank, while still maintaining the large disparities within ranks and between campuses. The only way to change this system is to simply update the salary scale and get rid of most off-scale negotiations.

At the center of this question of compensation are the debates over equality versus individualism and public versus private. While many faculty members insist that they want to keep the university public, and they believe in pursuing social and economic equality, everything in the system is moving towards a more unequal and privatized structure.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

March 5th Occupy the Capitol Recap

March 5th brought thousands of students, teachers, labor activists, and occupiers to Sacramento to protest cuts to higher education and push for the Millionaire’s tax to fund vital public services. While students were inside lobbying legislators to protect our public colleges and universities, thousands marched to the Capitol for a spirited rally that included speeches by Lt. Governor Gavin Newsome, Senate Leader Steinberg, and Assembly Leader Perez. While the legislators stated that the best way to support higher education is to support the governor’s tax plan, most of the speakers argued for the Millionaire’s tax.

After the rally, hundreds of people entered the Capitol and attempted to occupy the building. There was a heavy police presence, and for several hours, we were allowed to hold a general assembly to vote on our demands. The central demands were to support the millionaire’s tax, make public higher education free, and forgive student loan debt. At about 5 p.m., the police decided to close the building early, and we were soon told that we would be arrested if we did not leave. During this time, three students were arrested for trying to hang a banner from the second floor of the Rotunda. When I confronted the California Highway Patrol officers about their efforts to choke off the constitutional rights of free speech and the freedom of assembly, I was told that the students are a threat to public safety because they were blocking the pathway to the exists. I guess if you put highway patrol people in charge of the Capitol, they see everything in terms of traffic.

At 5:30, we held a scheduled rally outside of the Capitol. In a short speech, I argued that we are not only fighting for more revenue for higher education in the state of California, but our push for the Millionaire’s tax is a national fight to reverse forty years of conservative tax cuts and the de-funding of public education. I did a radio interview during the rally on this topic that you can listen at here.

After the rally, we attempted to deliver pizzas to the people who were still in the Capitol. Hundreds of us marched to the other side of the building where we met a very large group of police in full military-style riot gear. We told them that we wanted to deliver the food to the people in the building, but we were informed that the occupiers had to come out to get their pizza. We then a long standoff, which was punctuated by several chants like, “How do we want our Pizza?,” “We want it hot!” and “Let them Eat!”

We were never able to deliver the pizza, and soon 70 occupiers were arrested, but we did deliver our message. I want to thank Charlie Eaton from UAW, who did a great job coordinating many of these activities. To support the Millionaire’s tax go here, and for more media about March 5th, go here.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Millionaire’s Tax and the Reversal of the Conservative Revolution

The “Millionaire’s Tax” is being seen as a fight that has national and international implications. As austerity policies spread throughout the world, very few states or countries have tried to reverse the course and raise taxes to support needed public programs. In response to the global financial crisis of 2008-9, the general consensus has been that one must bailout the wealthy, while one cuts governmental services for everyone else. For instance, as the US Federal Reserve continues to give trillions of dollars of no-interest loans to banks and investment firms, almost every state has cut its funding for higher education. Also, as state cuts result in larger tuition prices, students are forced to take out huge loans, while universities and colleges increase class sizes and reduce enrollments.

At the heart of this push for austerity is a conservative revolution based on a tax revolt. Starting with Prop 13 in California, rich people realized that if they wanted to increase their income and decrease their taxes, they would need to demonize government and equate it with welfare for minorities. In other words, the major way that conservatives have justified tax cuts for the wealthy is by arguing that we do not need taxes to support Big Government, and how they make this anti-government rhetoric work is by connecting symbolically Big Government to minorities. In turn, to show that minorities do not need our help, and in fact these minorities on welfare are the victimizers and not the victims, conservatives had to convince people that minorities are no longer the victims of racism, sexism, and classism. Thus, according to this logic, if we live in a post-racial and post-gender society, there is no need to help out disadvantaged minorities through welfare, and therefore we do not need Big Government or even taxes.

Of course, it does not matter that welfare makes up a small part of the federal budget, and most people on welfare assistance are white; what matters is that by conjuring the image of the Welfare Queen or the Food Stamp President, conservatives are able to access the part of our brain that is structured by unconscious, symbolic associations. For example, in a study of word associations, it was found that conservatives often associate the words crime and welfare with black people. This type of automatic, intuitive, unconscious association is often in conflict with the conscious ideas that people hold. Therefore, people may think that they are color-blind, but a part of their brain color codes social representations, and this is why the conservative use of coded attacks is so effective. For instance, when New Gingrich uses the phrase “our Food Stamp President,” he is not only saying that Democrats like to give food stamps to poor people, but the President himself is imagined to be a black man on food stamps.

In terms of the Millionaire’s tax, the reversal of this unconscious conservative cultural revolution will entail re-educating people about what the government can do, while we also reverse the reversed racism that sees poor people, immigrants, and public employees as the victimizers and rich people as the victims. Instead of pitying the billionaires, we have to get people to see that we are all part of the 99%, and the 1% should pay their fair share. In fact, the Occupy Wall Street movement has helped to create a new set of unconscious associations that link the wealthy to the exploitation of everyone else. Let us wok together to push for the Millionaire’s tax and a reversal of the conservative revolution. We will have rallies on the UC campuses on March 1st, and then we will occupy Sacramento on March 5th.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Academic Council Rejects Proposed New Compensation Plan

The UC Academic Council (the system-wide faculty senate) has rejected the new proposed compensation system (APM 668) , which would “allow academic departments to use non-state funds to provide additional salary for general campus faculty, similar to the health sciences compensation plan.” The Council declared that, “All ten divisions and five committees (CCGA, UCAP, UCFW, UCORP, UCPB) responded. Academic Council discussed the proposal at its meeting on December 14 and concluded that it cannot support adoption of the proposed APM 668. While many members expressed support for the goal of finding creative ways to better compensate faculty and improve retention, Council agreed that the proposal as written is fundamentally flawed and strongly opposed its implementation.”

This news is very welcomed because the proposed plan would have created incredible inequality within the senate faculty ranks. According to the report, “While a minority of individuals and two divisions (UCSD, UCSF) welcomed the proposal as a way to offer competitive salaries to retain faculty, the majority found it deficient because: 1) it undermines UC’s tradition of setting salaries through peer review based on a common salary scale and cedes too much authority for setting salaries to deans and department chairs; 2) it exacerbates inequities by rewarding only those achievements that receive external funding; 3) it is likely to cause conflicts of interest and faculty effort; and 4) it does not anticipate or provide mechanisms for addressing unanticipated consequences.” This new compensation system would have allowed faculty to increase their base pay through external grants and departmental revenue, and this would undermine the salaries of faculty in the humanities and the social sciences, while it would increase the salaries of the highest earning professors. Moreover, this system would circumvent the peer review system and would increase the collusion between faculty and administrators.

What this report does not say is that a large number of professors are already gaining large salary increases through retention offers and private negotiations with individual administrators, but this rejection of the new system is a step in the right direction. As my research has shown, the major problem that senate faculty face in regards to compensation is the growing disparity between the stars and everyone else. While the report does recognize this issue, it actually dismisses the role played by off-scale salaries in creating huge compensation disparities: “Off-scale salaries are not arbitrarily determined; they reward exceptional merit through the regular academic personnel review process (UCSB). If implemented, the policy should require that deans consult with CAP to validate salary decisions (UCI).” Although the people from UCSB argue that the current retention system does not circumvent shared governance and the peer review system, a past report revealed that a large majority of UC professors have negotiated individual deals with administrators, and while merit reviews do go through peer review, retention offers are handled by administrators.

The Council did point out that the new compensation system could “worsen gender and racial salary equity issues, and that it would “reward only some forms of faculty effort and accomplishment (UCPB).” Moreover, the Council report states that this system “could provide incentives for faculty to shift their effort toward revenue-producing research activities and away from other types of research and teaching and service, producing a “conflict of effort”.” Once again, it is important to stress that we already have a system that does incentivize research over teaching, but it is good to know that the Council is aware of this issue.

Another important point in the report is that the new policy “is an ill-considered step toward increasing privatization of the University, absolving the state of its responsibility to support the institution in the name of entrepreneurship.” While this process of privatization is also already happening, it is vital that the Council is thinking about this ongoing issue. Furthermore, some of the campuses have rightly pointed out that the new plan could also hurt the ability of grants to cover their full costs by decreasing the Indirect Cost Recovery (ICR): “first, since ICR does not fully cover the cost of research, an increased number of grants could worsen the university’s fiscal situation (UCLA, UCSB). Second, ICR could be reduced due to the diversion of research funding to salaries (UCORP).” As I have been arguing for years, one of the central problems still facing the UC system is how to pay for the full cost of research.

Another concern is that by stressing the generation of entrepreneurial revenue, the university would be undermining its public nature: “Some fear that it would negatively impact the public character of the university by encouraging the creation of more high-fee, self-supporting programs that drain faculty resources from core programs (UCLA).” In fact, I have feared that this new compensation plan would push faculty to accept the move to online courses because departments have been told that these high-tech classes will generate extra revenue for professors.

In this new privatized and corporatized university, increases in compensation inequality could create a culture of resentment, and therefore the Council warns that, “the proposal may benefit a small number of faculty but that it will not solve systemic compensation problems.” Unfortunately, the solution proposed by the Berkeley campus would only increase the current problem: “Berkeley suggested that allocating revenues, when available, to provide additional off-scale salary increments, would be a better way of funding increases, without the problems associated with the proposed negotiated salary program.” This emphasis on off-scale salaries will not reduce compensation inequalities and the circumvention of the peer review policy. What the senate faculty need is a new and improved salary scale.