Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Political Economy of Enrollment


One the most important debates about the crisis of public higher education these days has to do with understanding the reasons for the restructuring of the public university, which is tied to everything from skyrocketing tuition and student debt to administrative corporatization. In very schematic terms, there are two answers: one focuses on state governments and budget cuts to public higher education, the other on university administrations and their profit-seeking protagonism. The way we choose to answer the question is politically important because it is part of what shapes our strategic and tactical response. If the state government is the primary actor, interventions will generally operate at the level of electoral politics, either through supporting candidates, lobbying, or more generally “making a case” for supporting public education. In contrast, if university administrations are the primary actors, interventions will generally occur more locally, at the level of the campus or system, through actions like rallies, walkouts, strikes, occupations, and so on. Of course, things aren’t always as clear cut as this dichotomy suggests. But in a context where austerity is so visible and “politics” is largely seen as something politicians do, it’s important to remember the active role of administrators in restructuring their universities into the ground.

These debates are organized in part by how the numbers are calculated. Take the recent and controversial New York Times essay by Paul Campos, which argued counterintuitively that government support for higher education has actually increased, not declined, since the 1960s. He claimed that the real reason tuition has gone up so much is not budget cuts but the skyrocketing expenditures that channel money into administrative bloat and building construction. Not surprisingly, the piece generated a quick response from folks who see state funding as the key. A number of these critiques turned on the claim that he was using the wrong metric—rather than aggregate support for higher education, he should instead be using per-student funding:
Overall, public spending on higher education has, as Campos argues, risen dramatically over the long term. But so have the number of Americans attending college. When administrators say that government support is shrinking, what they usually mean is that per student appropriations have fallen. This is a crucial point. Someone has to foot the bill for each and every undergraduate's education. If taxpayers don't do it, then families have to pick up the slack themselves.
And sure enough, the administrators did in fact say exactly that. Nathan Brostrom, the Chief Financial Officer of the University of California system (and former JP Morgan exec), wrote a letter to the Times criticizing the Campos piece in which he made exactly this argument:
Mr. Campos blames administrative bloat and high salaries; I disagree. The State of California, for example, funds the University of California system at the same level as it did in 1999—even though today we enroll 83,000 more students and have one more campus.
The per-student argument makes mathematical sense. It’s obvious that equal funding / more students = less funding per student. State funding per student has obviously declined. And yet... using this metric as the gold standard seems to miss something important about the function of the student at the public university today.

When higher education was relatively fully funded by the state—when tuition was zero—the per-student metric made sense. Under the Master Plan, state funding for the UC was pegged to in-state enrollment. In that context, enrollment served as a reasonable way to quantify the “public good” produced by state support for higher education. Rising enrollment theoretically meant more trained workers who could be funneled into the labor market. The massive expansion of the infrastructure of public higher education during the 1960s, when not only new buildings but entirely new campuses were constructed, was justified in exactly these terms.

Over the last three decades, however, these enrollment quotas have gradually been removed. Little remains, likewise, of the idea of higher education as a “public good.” What is the function of the student today? It depends who you ask. Teachers see (or should see) students as critical, thinking subjects, who they can learn with and from. But administrators see students as dollar signs. These days, students are little more than revenue streams that show up on credit reports as potential liquidity and favorable interest rates. We all understand that tuition increases are an attempt by university administrations to bring in more revenue. But enrollment increases do the same thing. And this actually shouldn’t be all that controversial, since we already talk about out-of-state enrollment in exactly this way. But is it the case for in-state enrollment as well?

Last week, the UC regents approved an increase in out-of-state tuition by 8 percent per year for the next 5 years. Next year, out-of-state students will pay an extra $1,830 in tuition. During the meeting, Brostrom himself pointed out that the UC could accommodate 10,000 more undergraduate students if the state provided additional funding for them. He also suggested that the administration would lobby the state for these funds. The CFO’s language frames increased enrollment as a public good, a drag on the university’s resources, certainly, but something that the state should do, as the state once did. What he doesn’t say, however, is that enrolling 10,000 more in-state undergrads (at 2015-2016 tuition levels) would provide the university with an extra $112.2 million per year. And even if we assume those 83,000 extra tuition-paying students are all California residents, that’s nearly a billion extra dollars in gross annual revenue over 1999 levels.

Now, the UC administration claims that the cost of instruction is greater than in-state tuition. But these claims are at best debatable and at worst simply not credible, because as Chris Newfield and Bob Samuels have shown they include research and other non-educational expenses in order to inflate the alleged instructional cost. (It's gotten to the point that, as Samuels observes, the administration literally claims it costs $342,500 to educate one medical student for one year.) According to Newfield, a more reasonable estimate of the cost of instruction for undergraduates would be somewhere between 40-80 percent of the administration’s figures. Even using the higher rate, then, the administration still generates a net profit for every extra student they bring in.

Per-student funding can be a useful metric for clarifying certain trends, but it’s equally important to understand the things it makes invisible. University administrators make decisions about enrollment not out of some abstract interest in the “public good” but rather out of a very concrete interest in the bottom line. Enrollment should not be treated as a given but as a variable that may shift as executives and financial officers seek to optimize revenue flows. In this context, using per-student funding may obscure the function of the student today while deflecting antagonism toward the state.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ambiguous news from Sacramento

Today Governor Brown announced his revised budget. Despite general enthusiasm about its two-year tuition freeze for in-state students, the budget presents a pretty ambiguous picture. In addition to allowing up to 8% annual hikes for out-of-state tuition, it also imposes a series of regressive transformations on the UCs. For example, the budget sets in place requirements that campuses push students toward three-year degrees:
In addition to supporting timely four‑year degrees, each campus will develop three‑year degree pathways for 10 out of its top 15 majors by March 1, 2016, which will provide students with another option to earn a UC degree. The UC has committed to promoting and encouraging these accelerated pathways with a goal that 5 percent of students will access these accelerated tracks by the summer of 2017.
The reduction of time-to-degree is presented as a solution to a problem that would not exist absent university privatization: 3 year degrees are affirmed by the State insofar as they allow students to avoid paying another year's worth of high tuition and room and board. But this accelerated pace would diminish educational quality, and would impose on students an even more intense schedule, making it difficult for them to organize strikes and other sorts of unproductive activities. A couple other areas of concern are the agreements between the governor and UCOP that in-state tuition should begin to rise by at least the rate of inflation after the two-year freeze, the establishment of a third pension tier, and the $18 million dollar cut to the Middle Class Scholarship Program.

But to return to the out-of-state tuition hike: the state's effort to divide the student body (in terms of their immediate political interests) between those from California and those from other states or from abroad seems to be working. While the out-of-state tuition hike is not nearly as high as what was being discussed last December (an up to 8% annual increase rather than 17%), the multi-thousand dollar hike is not insignificant in terms of out-of-state students' debt levels, nor is it politically insignificant. Those who rule the state seem to be on the verge of breaking what had been an established across the board tuition freeze: they are thus rolling back some of the student movement gains of 2012. The following charts, composed by Shannon Ikebe, show recent (and projected) trends in tuition rates (based on data from UCLA):

Not only does the out-of-state hike extract more money from certain students and thus divide the immediate interests of the student body, it also exacerbates inequalities between UC campuses, with those (like UCB and UCLA) with relatively whiter and wealthier student bodies receiving a disproportionate funding increase, while those (like UCR, UCM, and UCSC) with higher percentages of working class / students of color receiving relatively little increase following the hike, since they have significantly lower rates of out-of-state students. While the chart on the left shows the percentage of the out-of-state tuition hike that will go to the respective campuses, the chart on the right shows what a more equitable distribution of funding would look like.

All of this is to say that Brown's revised budget is a politically ambiguous document, reflecting at once the power of mobilized students and the current limits of this power. Those who rule the state (whether they be UCOP bureaucrats, the Regents, or State Representatives) have managed to chip away at the tuition freeze and to introduce regressive reforms of UC education, even as active students (led by those at Santa Cruz) have managed to hold off even worse privatizing reforms. 

Beyond tuition, there are a number of regressive dynamics happening at the moment with respect to the repression of student organizers. At Santa Cruz, students who blockaded a highway in early March are still suspended from campus under the orders of conduct officers. This is, I believe, the first extended suspension imposed by a UC administration on anti-privatization protesters in recent memory. And it's possible that Berkeley students who briefly occupied California Hall a few weeks ago demanding a community benefits agreement for the Richmond Bay campus could also be facing conduct charges. If such charges materialize, they would constitute the first student conduct prosecutions for political activity at UCB since the delegitimization of the Office of Student Conduct accomplished over the spring of 2010 by a group of Boalt law students and by other active students. 

Thus, on both anti-privatization and anti-repression fronts, much remains to be done.   

Update [5/15/15]: Chris Newfield is up with a new piece on the revised budget, that especially breaks down the total state contribution levels, the pension re-tiering, and the state's insistence on a certain minimum ratio of transfer to four-year students, among other aspects of the revised budget. 


Monday, May 11, 2015

What Makes a University Public?: Privatization, Environmental Racism, and UC Berkeley’s Real Estate Office

by Beezer de Martelly

“It’s a gift to be here—you can take that to the bank.”
EVCP Claude Steele, May 5 Berkeley Forum “What Makes a University Public?”

“There is deferred maintenance all over the place.”
Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, May 5 Berkeley Forum “What Makes a University Public?”

For those who haven’t been paying attention, UC Berkeley’s recent move to expand the Real Estate Office’s control has led to some strange and shocking administrative moments in the last couple weeks.

One such moment was a May 5 Berkeley Forum in which Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele hosted a chat called “What Makes a University Public?” In this talk, they attempted to redefine “public education” to effectively argue that the kinds of private financial investments that circulate through the newly expanded Real Estate Office do not constitute privatization. These investments—alternately called “Public-Private Partnerships”—currently include privately funded construction projects such as the Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay, a brand new UC campus that will focus on lucrative STEM and Silicon Valley research; the Gill Tract, a piece of land the UC is trying to lease to outside contractors for $900,000/year for six acre plots; Berkeley student housing, including the privately funded Bowles Hall, several other new large-scale dormitories, and real estate developments at UC Village, to name only a few. 

Many students, faculty, workers, and community members are challenging the administration’s superficial rhetoric that such construction on public land does not constitute privatization, citing the lack of oversight for these projects, the ways that private money shifts research possibilities and priorities, and the rising tuition costs which are used to secure the Real Estate Office’s low interest construction loans, called “bonds.” Further, many believe the exorbitant costs for these expensive construction investments will ultimately be deferred to students, as has been the practice in the past, and the public, should the University go bankrupt. Dirks even admitted that this new development comes at the expense of deferred maintenance, as much of the Berkeley campus is in desperate need of basic upkeep.

The egregious forum was protested by multiple allies, where critics seemed to far outnumber supporters and even neutral attendees at the event. Unionists came to ask questions about poverty-level wages and job insecurity amid Berkeley’s contracting out of non-unionized labor. A Teamsters 2010 flyer read “Low Wages Do Not Serve the Public Good.” Also present were various students working on anti-privatization efforts, some of whom distributed sample audience questions for administrators about the UC’s commitment to public education. One question read, “Many of the UC Regents are heavily involved in the financial and real estate sectors. How should the UC Regents balance their private interests with the public’s interest?...What do we, as a public institution, owe to the public of Richmond?”

Perhaps the most significant presence at the Forum was a group of Black student organizers who are fighting to reverse Prof. Carolyn Finney’s arbitrary and unexplained denial of tenure. Finney, the only Black Professor in the Environmental Sciences Policy and Management department, researches racial exclusion in the environmental movement. Hers is an especially crucial voice at a time when the UC is trying to break ground in Richmond to construct a new, privately funded campus atop an EPA “superfund” designated toxic waste site in a largely black and brown working class community. Finney’s much acclaimed work represents an especially critical perspective during this phase of Richmond’s development in an environmentally sensitive area. Concerningly, one of the campus functions the Real Estate Office has taken over in its transition is Berkeley’s Environmental Health and Safety Office, which enforces compliance with environmental regulations, water safety, and construction permitting. Whether the EH&S Office will retain its autonomy and commitment to environmental justice or become a permit mill for new construction remains to be seen. Unless the University reverses the decision to deny Prof. Finney’s tenure, a decision within Chancellor Dirks’ power, this battle to ensure environmental justice will need to be waged with one fewer respected local researcher and community ally. 

Also prominent was the Respect Richmond Coalition, a student group pushing the Chancellor to sign a Community Benefits Agreement that would ensure that Richmond residents are not harmed by and actually benefit from the new UC campus construction. Many Richmond community members are currently struggling to stay in their homes as land speculation and rent rises and contributes to gentrification, and they are fighting to ensure that the new campus provides jobs and educational opportunities for local residents. Six student members of this group are now facing Student Conduct Charges for staging a peaceful sit-in outside the Chancellor’s office last week to push Dirks to sign the Richmond Agreement, an attempt to silence student concerns about the direction of the Richmond Bay development project. At the Berkeley Forum, a dozen Respect Richmond Coalition members assembled in a line at the front of the stage, mouths taped shut, holding signs that read “You Can’t Arrest Our Voices” and “Drop the Student Conduct Charges.”

Amid these groups was Fossil Free Cal, whose members distributed pamphlets calling on the UC to divest itself from fossil fuel assets. This group, comprised of students and alums, connected the University’s financial interest in toxic commodities to its profiting off of environmental injustice. “Talk is cheap,” read Fossil Free Cal’s flyer, “A public university that fails to ACT in the public interest sells its mission short.”

For those of us committed to a public UC Berkeley, this is an exciting moment, where there is potential to link many ongoing campus struggles to fight structural racism, privatization and gentrification, environmental degradation, and anti-labor measures. The forum was eventually shut down when the Chancellor and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost refused to answer audience questions about workers’ unlivable wages, when Finney’s tenure denial will be reversed and what it was denied in the first place, and why UC administrators are so actively undermining the UC’s public education mission. 

I write this update both to keep interested readers and coalition partners—wherever you may be—in the loop and also to urge people to continue organizing on these issues in whatever spaces you can and that feel right. This is a really significant time for our University, and it’s future as a public institution committed to racial and economic equality is truly on the line.