Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What the Cal State Gambit Says about Public Education Costs

Recently the California State University announced that unless a referendum passes that will partly restore their funding levels, they cannot afford to admit more students. So they won't. They're going to freeze admissions.

Think about what that says. Populist rhetoric would have you believe that the reason the costs of education are rising because universities are gauging students. I often hear my students complain about the costs of their education (the university I work at has the lowest tuition in its peer group). They believe that these costs are simply a result of feckless professors and administration gauging the students because they can. But in a world where state support for public education is dropping fast, in large part because the same politicians who use and encourage this populist view are arguing that they have to punish the professors and administrators for the rising costs by cutting funding further.

In response public universities have tried to keep tuition costs down. But the result is now that every new student that comes in the door of the universities represents a loss. That is, it costs more to educate that student (especially in a Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) than their tuition covers. I've talked to lots of professors in various colleges, disciplines etc and they all tell the same story. Tuition doesn't even cover half of the costs of operating the program. The populists will tell you that is because professors costs more. But here's a secret. Tuition never covered costs - ever. Public education was always subsidized by tax money and private education was subsidized by charitable donations and endowments.

That the CSU system sees freezing enrollment as a viable budgetary strategy tells you that cuts to public education have gotten so bad that the universities can no longer afford to keep operating unless they get more money from the state or dramatically increase tuition to the point where most of their students couldn't afford to attend.


USWest said...

I am glad you posted on this. I was wondering how that works because it's counter intuitive. You'd think that admitting students would guarantee funding and freezing admissions would actually cut revenue. But if each student represents a loss . . .

One of my co-workers who worked as an administrator for a military school once told me that each day he delayed a hiring action, he saved the institution $44,000. So he would delay several for a week or so just to save the money to cover salaries for existing employees all the way through the fiscal year. If you hire more employees in a given year than originally planned, you have to stretch the budget. Same is probably true for new university students. CSUs have been growing quickly in terms of student population.

If the CSUs actually do this, then the JCs will be grossly impacted. They are a system that is subsidized and operates at a loss! They won't be able to absorb all those students.
It really is a crisis. UC's are required by law to take so many students from California. So California students will have to go out of state, which will mean higher tuition costs for families. It's better for the state to subsidize our schools rather than forcing our students to subsidize out of state schools.

Brown needs to get a constitutional convention going. We have to fix the tax problem in this state.

Raised By Republicans said...

Taxes HAVE to go back up in California. Notice I say "go back up" not just "go up." The tax rate in the early 1990s was sufficient to cover current costs without this crisis. Republicans and their populist rabble have been driving the debate on public revenue and spending for too long. We are not over taxed either in comparison to peer countries or in comparison to our own past. This fetish with constantly lowering taxes is destroying important public services - like education.

If California doesn't fix the tax problem - and US West is right that it will take a constitutional convention because of Prop 13 - it is in danger of becoming a tragically bifurcated society in which the super wealthy live in big houses and send their kids to private universities or public universities that are so expensive that might as well be private and the vast majority of society rents, lives in modest or even squalid conditions and has no hope of social mobility in the future. California is a test case for the Republican "Starve the Beast" strategy of achieving their Dickensian Dystopia.

USWest said...

Republicans want to drain the system to create just the environment RBR describes. They think poor people are guilty for their poverty because they are just irresponsible. And of course, God will provide. They want a permanent underclass they can exploit. The bad part is that "middle class" is starting to look "poor". The irony is that Republicans are a minority in this state, but they are an effective opposition force.

As for education, I've long said that we put too much emphasis on college- academics, and not enough on occupational trades. And maybe we need to reform our General Education requirements in colleges. Maybe we should require an Intro to computer science course rather than say psychology.

And businesses and trade unions are to blame for some of this. Unions are the worst. Business have tried to some degree. They need to take a page from ROTC, professional sports, or even street gangs. Get them in young. Hold then close and keep them straight.

And then there was this notion that everyone would be IT specialist and "knowledge workers" and we'd export all the manual work to India. That was crap and now we have to re-adjust.

So Mexicans do the occupational trades and white kids go to school, with no clear clue about what to do with themselves afterwards.But ideally, they'd be doctors,lawyers, and teachers.

There is a disconnect between education and the job market. Somehow we decided that the purpose of education was not to get a job but to be a "well-rounded", "cultured" person. That may have been true when college students were exclusively rich kids and when trades were learned from "daddy and mommy". But today, that notion is wrong.

An article in the local paper described "Occupational Olympics, a different version of Academic Decathlon. High school students competed in 24 events ranging from accounting to welding, robotics to marketing mathematics.54 business and industry representatives exhibited and spoke to students about future careers. More of this needs to be done.

That said, even people working in manufacturing need some college work. Analytical, science, math, and language skills are needed more and more. Robotics is the new "machinist".

Monkeyman said...

I have to say I'm a little bit confused about this. How can an additional student possible generate a loss? It seems that most costs are fixed: (tenured) faculty, buildings, ... You can always make classes bigger. It's the marginal cost that matters and I have trouble seeing how MC could be greater than tuition.

So I'm wondering whether this is mainly a PR stunt - a way of making it crystal clear to the public that underfunding education has consequences.

By the way, I totally support more education funding; I don't have any beef with that message at all. Just wondering ...

Raised By Republicans said...

Monkey Man, I think I get your question. Let me try to explain. Part of it is in your parenthetical reference to tenured faculty. To that, I'd add tenure tack faculty (faculty members on full time, long term contracts). They are going to be there even if a new class of students does not get admitted. But many universities rely on temporary faculty that are hired on year by year, semester by semester or even a class by class basis. These instructors get paid a lot less than the tenure track folks but they still get paid. So more students means hiring more of them and if tuition doesn't cover the costs...

The Cal States don't have PhD programs for the most part but some schools will use M.A. students as Teaching Assistants. T.A.s can cost even more than the temporary faculty because they get more expensive benefits but work with fewer students per T.A. (tuition remission, health care etc). Reducing the number of students can have a huge impact on the number of T.A.s a college has to hire.

Another factor can be housing costs. If a full incoming class forces a Cal State to have all their dorms open and operating, that's a cost. It might be (just guessing on this one) that not admitting and entire entering class at once would let a Cal State campus temporarily close a dorm or two.

All that said, I think it is partly a stunt. But it is based in some economic realities. It does cost far more to educate a student than the student (or the student's parents) pay in tuition. I think that gap is probably less glaring when you look at marginal costs but I would bet it is still there.

USWest said...

I would point out that our campuses offer a plethora of services that are unheard of in other countries. examples: Gyms, medical facilities, in-dorm computer assistance, campus wide WI-fi networks,distance learning facilities, free printing services,expanded libraries and library hours, special outdoor facilities like skate parks on campus, etc. It is rather decadent really. The more use, the more need for maintenance, the more consumption. Our campuses are little villages. I visited a local CSU with my niece a while back and was stunned at what they were doing to draw students and cater to them. They had non-drinking dorms, co-ed dorms, single sex dorms, 24 hr. in dorm tech assistance and computer repair, etc. I imagine a lot of this will come to a halt as funding decreases.

I would add that the race for top notch technology is also a problem. Schools want to keep up with the latest trends in part to prepare their students. And that costs a lot of money. My institution, which is far from typical of any Junior college, thinks that it will save money "in the long run" (yet undefined) by going from a PC environment to a MAC environment. They think that issuing every student and teacher an Ipad and Mac book is money saving. We have 2000 teachers and 3,500 students. Do the math. When we protest the cost, we are assured that a study (none of us has seen said study) determined this would be cheaper. None of us believe it. This comes 5-7 years after we installed SmartBoards (at $10K a piece) in all of our classrooms and conference rooms. This comes as we face multiple year pay freezes and hiring freezes. So there has been some excess going on as well.

Monkeyman said...

RbR, UsWest, thanks for your answers. That explains where all that cost comes from. I still find it surprising that these variable costs surpass tuition, but I guess there's a lot more to it than just faculty and buildings. It would be interesting to see some accounting data on how these costs actually stack up percentage-wise.

Raised By Republicans said...

Monkeyman, we forgot student aid! Many students get some sort of aid from their school in the form of reduced fees or tuition. A friend of mine who is on the board of regents for an elite private liberal arts college said that way over half of that school's students get financial aid from the school (that is distinct from aid from the feds or loans).

At the university I currently work at (which I don't want to name so I can maintain my anonymity), faculty salaries (I don't know if that includes non-tenure track) amount to 36.8% of the 2011-2012 budget.

Here are the things I'm pretty confident could be cut if the number of students drops.
Student aid: 12.2% of the budget
General Service Salaries: 11.9%
Utilities: 5.4%
Supplies and Services: 8.5%

Now the university I work at gets 58.4% of its general budget covered from tuition. It may well be that Cal States get much less of their general budget covered by tuition. If that's the case, then they would be particularly sensitive to additional bodies on campus. Especially if they serve a lower income student population that would be more dependent on financial aid.

Raised By Republicans said...

US West is right to point to student life type costs (like free wi-fi in the dorms, free printing services, entertainment activities) too. Some colleges have really gone all out to set up really fancy dorms with expensive cable/wi-fi packages and meal plans that the university provides for less than it costs them.

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