The $48 Fix Is Broken

$48 per median household is what Reclaim California Higher Education (RCHE) estimates is needed to restore postsecondary education in the state. They claim the $9.43 billion in new taxes would not only restore state spending on HE to the 1.17% of AGI it enjoyed in 2001, but also provide tuition-free HE to all qualified in-state students. Importantly, the only new money in the Reclaim Master Plan (RMP) is $4.71 billion that RCHE calculates would restore funding to comparable 2001 levels, since even without their plan, by state or by student, $4.72 billion in tuition revenue will find its way to institutional coffers in 2016-17.

I like the RCHE approach to this problem, using straightforward, basic funding calculations, rather than administrative or bureaucratic redesigns. Weissmann, from The Atlantic, has made similar calculations in support of nationwide tuition-free HE. His estimate is an additional $62.6 billion in public funding. And across the country there are other initiatives that promise 2-years of tuition-free college, which also require either additional funds or funds diverted from other social responsibilities.

I have responded to one of these proposals in detail (F2CO, from Sara Goldrick-Rab) and all of them in general. I will now do the same with the RCHE proposal, raising concerns and drawing comparisons with PSA.

How Secure Is the Funding?

Foremost, as I argued in, Paying the Price with Vulnerable Funds, all plans that advocate tuition-free HE invariably rely on additional or diverted funding from what is a demonstrably vulnerable source – the government. The RMP is no different. The RCHE plan spends considerable time presenting the causes and extent of decline in state funding over a period of 30 years – and then suggests we ask for more money from the state. I suppose this makes sense if government is the lesser of evils – having condemned the increase in tuition, privatization, philanthropy, and corporate partnerships as failed funding sources.

But, this does not exhaust the alternatives. In the end, PSA may not be deemed the lesser of evils, but it has at least one unique point is in its favour. It doesn’t rely on additional or diverted public funding. PSA is a plan that does not ask for more, but rather provides more for less – more than RMP, F2CO or any plan now in operation or consideration. Along with other substantial improvements, PSA offers high-quality, tuition-free, face-to-face HE for far less than current funding. In fact, for around 75% less.

If HE requires less funding, then it is less susceptible to economic and social vagaries of the sort that have caused the current crisis – and the privatized inroads that now pave it. By contrast, RMP only leaves the California HE system more vulnerable by asking for additional taxpayer money.

What is the $4.72 billion in new funding expected to cover?

But how about the funds it does ask for, what do Californians get? In some regards the plan is clear. For instance, it claims to provide a system at least as well supported as the one in 2001 and tuition-free HE in all three segments of the system – UC, CSU and CCC. But other claims are not clear and I would like to have seen greater detail on how RCHE expects the $9.43 billion ($4.72 billion in new funding) to solve the many serious problems of HE, including: 1) expansion and repair of physical infrastructure; 2) exploited graduate student labour; 3) exploited faculty labour; 4) insufficient capacity; 5) low and lengthy completion rates; and 6) dubious quality education delivery.

The RMP spends considerable time discussing what sort of education postsecondary students require in the 21st century, but aren’t getting because the system lacks the funds. It mentions how the similarly underfunded K-12 system is not adequately preparing students for college and university, resulting in a substantial need for remedial instruction, counseling and mentoring; which is not met by abbreviated and online programs that have failed to work.

One obvious response is to raise taxes to better fund the K-12 system, not the HE system. Instead the RMP intimates the effective response is to hire more institutional employees – faculty, counselors, mentors, and teaching assistants. The plan says, “Consistent advising is important to academic success, yet California community colleges have had to work with a student-to-counselor ratio of 2000:1.” (Pg. 10) And the only explicit mention of faculty in the whole document is the following sentence: “Commitment of time by well-prepared faculty makes the difference [with respect to successful remedial education].” (Pg.15)

The plan either ignores the very serious problem of contingent faculty labour or assumes that it will be solved (along with the many other problems) by throwing the $4.72 billion in new funding at a system whose troubles will only be exasperated by tuition-free inspired enrollment increases. But if 70% of the faculty at HEIs are contingent then commitment and preparedness are points of concern. How exactly does the RMP solve this significant problem? Or reduce the student-to-counselor ratio? Or ensure quality? Or improve completion rates? Or augment capacity? Or…?

The vague and frankly na├»ve response seems to be, ‘just restore funding’. 

In contrast, PSA squarely addresses the labour problems of HE. Though it requires less funding (not more) it can put into service as many academics and support staff as required, and compensate them far better than the current system. In ways that the current institutional system of colleges and universities can’t hope to, PSA also incentivizes academics and teaching support staff to provide effective, efficient (remedial) education and meet expected completion rates. After all, the only source of tenure in PSA is the publicly reported successes (or failures) of the professional academic practice.

In a system like PSA, if academics and support staff fail to do a good job, then the practice falters, directly affecting income. With this sort of incentive, academics and teaching support staff are encouraged to seek professional development or simply leave the field of education. Or, perhaps those with a talent for remedial education might specialize, while others might gravitate to (say) graduate students.

What the RMP does say about labour is restricted to graduate TAs and RAs, is puzzling, and only reveals how RCHE has failed to give the HE labour problem adequate consideration – even though it is soundly linked to their discussion of improved quality and access.

Eliminating tuition and fees for in-state students would provide a dramatic improvement by increasing available funding for employing a graduate teaching or research assistant and freeing up grant and departmental (state) funds for increasing graduate student stipends, thereby substantially improving the graduate student experience.” (Pg. 20)

It is not all clear how this is so. The revenue from tuition and fees was already going to the ailing tripartite system, so no opportunity for improvement there. Only new money can address the egregious labour situation. TAs and RAs are arguably more severely exploited than contingent faculty are under the current institutional model. So, if the tuition and fees graduate students pay now don’t correct that circumstance, then passing the burden to the public is a patently impotent response.

Given all the other problems of the institutional model of HE – decades of infrastructure neglect, expanded administration costs, increased debt, dwindling research funding, etc. - surely the authors of the RMP don’t imagine the $4.71 billion in restored funding per FTE student at CSU and UC is enough to solve the major labour problems faced by the institutional model; especially in a tuition-free system that encourages increased enrollment in need of labour intensive remedial education and improved completion rates.

It’s true that the elimination of tuition provides some relief for (graduate) students, and that is commendable, but this does not translate into “dramatic improvement” in compensation for valuable TA and RA labour. If the RCHE thinks so, then they need to provide more details.

Setting aside for the moment the impact of labour problems on capacity and quality, as far as infrastructure is concerned, the repairs and facility expansion required for tuition-free enrollment levels is, I suppose, also to come from the $4.71 billion in new funding. As it stands now the impaction rates for California are dramatic. For the 2016-17 academic year, 25% of CSU campuses were entirely closed to enrollment, while all other campuses had more than one program closed. At the same time, there were an estimated 400,000 qualified students on admission waiting lists. If restoration is the aim, then along with sufficient numbers of properly skilled and compensated faculty, years of maintenance, repair and construction neglect would also need to be addressed with the new funding.

At this point, the available funds are being stretched very thin, which only increases system vulnerability.

PSA offers a solution for this too. The facilities and services of HEIs (offices, classrooms, printing, computing, etc.) can be rented by academics in private HE practice. As vendors for such academic practices, this would produce a new source of revenue for HEIs. And where whole segments of the tripartite system or individual campuses convert to the PSA model, the institutional expense of faculty and teaching support staff is dissolved. Between the new source of vendor revenue and reduction in institutional labour expenses facility maintenance and repair is better managed.

Such a transformation is not inconceivable since the assets of UC, CSU and CCC are in the first place largely created by public funds and so subject to the will of the public.

On a related revenue point, the RMP says, “Restoring the promise of higher education in California would mean the systems would no longer need to paper over funding gaps with non-resident tuition and could roll back out-of-state enrollment to historical levels.” (Pg. 4) The RCHE plan sees interstate and presumably international students as a strain on the capacity of the California system – desired for their tuition revenue but disliked for their displacement of resident students.

Because PSA is not interested in restoring the institutional model of HE, but in reforming it, the model is not defined within the limited faculty and facility capacity of HEIs. PSA expands capacity through the introduction of independent academic practices that operate within existing HEI vendors or throughout the wider vendor community, and so there is no need to limit service to in-state students. The only reason the RMP thinks it prudent to do so, is because the plan maintains the current institutional model, with all its limitations, imperfections and vulnerabilities.

International students are a highly desirable source of revenue for state and citizen. In 2015, just under one million international students contributed $30.5 billion to the US economy, while they directly created 135,425 jobs and indirectly supported another 237,967. Interstate students have a similar effect on states. It would be imprudent to limit their introduction to the California system, just for the sake of restoring the comparatively inferior institutional model.

Is the Will There?

Finally, to set context for their plan the RCHE relies on a 2016 survey conducted by Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) designed to measure Californians’ views of HE. While the results clearly indicated that Californians think state funding is too low, student debt too high and price a barrier to entry, the results were not as clear when it comes to a new tax solution. Here’s what the RMP says:

“PPIC also asked likely voters about raising taxes to boost higher education funding. With the size of the increase left to respondents’ imaginations, results were about evenly split.” (Pg. 5)

This does not bode well for the RMP. Even though respondents could imagine any increase, still only about 50% favoured new taxes. Further, some respondents will have imagined tax rates lower than the $48 proposed by the RMP and there will undoubtedly be a range of support for new taxes from strong to moderate to weak. These realities begin to dilute the support that RCHE can hope to find for its Master Plan.

I wonder what Californians would say were they presented with the possibility of PSA? How would they respond to a plan that asks for far less money than the current system uses, while it improves access of in-state, out-of-state and international students, better compensates frontline faculty and teaching support staff, improves quality and completion rates, and makes all levels of HE tuition-free? The PSA plan is far better developed than the RMP, and I have only skimmed the surface of its superiority.


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