The California tuition protests: much ado about very little?

Anger over the tuition increase at the University of California erupted into several protests and resulted in numerous arrests last week.  Protesters used tactics that included throwing incendiary devices at police cars, vandalizing the home of the chancellor of University of California, and breaking in and barricading themselves inside university buildings.

Given that students are so angry, how much money do they actually have to spend more per year?  The University of California website “estimated” pre-increase 2009-2010 tuition to be $8,700 and uniform across all campuses, while the Yahoo Financial website reported that pre-increase 2008-2009 tuition and fee to be about $8,932 per year for Berkeley students.  (Both figures exclude costs of books and living expenses, which are not affected by the tuition increase.)

Post tuition-increase, in-state students will pay $10,302 per year, so the increase comes out to be about $2,500 – $2,700 per student.  Given that about 1/3 of the tuition hike is going towards financial aid, the actual costs for low-income students may be much lower.

Post-tuition-increase, University of California will be one of the more expensive public schools in the U.S., but not the most expensive  by a long stretch.  The tuition for the University of Vermont, for example, comes at a hefty $13,554 per year.  University of Pittsburgh, another one of the most expensive public universities in the U.S., charges in-state students $13,344 per year.  Pennsylvania State University (College Park) charge in-state students between $13,014 to $14,904 per year, depending on their year in school.  Indeed, many other public universities have already been more expensive than the current sticker price of the University of California for several years now.

The University of Vermont created a somewhat defensive but helpful chart that compares some university costs.  As you can see, pre-tuition-hike, University of California was one of the least expensive public universities.  Given its stature and reputation, not just among public universities but among all universities, the students in California was getting an incredible bargain.

Post-tuition-hike, the University of California is certainly less of a bargain than before, but it is still a good value compared to other public universities.  It is an extremely good value compared to private colleges and universities that cost three or four times as much.

The pre-tuition-hike University of California was so much of a bargain that Ian Ayres, professor of law and economics at Yale, wrote shortly after the increase that he believe that the UC tuition increase was a good thing.  The problem with public universities, wrote Professor Ayres, was not that they cost too much for the poor, but that they charge the rich too little.

In other words, the University of California was under-charging those who have no problem affording a more expensive education, and not using enough of its funds to subsidize those who cannot afford the education without a lot of financial aid.  If the goal was to provide education for all who is willing and deserving, it would make sense to the charge the rich more and use that increased tuition to simultaneously increase fianncial aid for low-income students.

Indeed, the agitation over $2,500 seems like a lot of sound and fury over very little.  But the anger reflects a legitimate concern as well.  After all, the tuition hike at the University of California reflected not a concern for equity but a darker trend — the floundering economy and the subsequent hefty budget cuts that must then be made up by increased tuition.  The president of UC-Berkeley noted that the UC system received only half as much funding per student as it did in 1990.  He also spoke of his fear, not at all unfounded, of a “exodus of faculty” from the cash-strapped school for greener pastures.

Still, all the anger (and violence) seem completely misdirected.  The responsibility for the budget shortfall seems to lie more with the legislature and the governor, the decision makers who actually cut the funding, rather than the chancellor, who was merely one among the twenty trustees who voted for the tuition hike.  Perhaps, rather than occupying school buildings, disrupting class, and committing petty vandalism on private property, the protesters should direct their anger towards Sacramento and use that energy to engage with, and reform, the political process.

California vs. Nebraska: two models of university governance

Protesters against the California tuition hike.

Two important education news items today both have to do with public universities. They invite interesting comparisons of the types of governance structure in our public universities.

First, the University of California is set to increase undergraduate tuition by 32%.  The increase is meant to make up for large cuts in state funding.

Second, the University of Nebraska is considering regulations to restrict stem cell research more severely than federal regulations.  If the regulation passes, it would be the first time that a university implements higher limits for stem cell research than either state or federal laws.

Both measures are meeting oppositions from the public.  In California, the tuition hike is being protested by thousands of students across the state.  In Nebraska, the medical research community has spoken out against the possible restrictions, arguing that a policy like this would have extremely negative effects on Nebraska’s ability to attract research funding and scholars.

Which leads to the question: how much control does the public have over the decisions and the decision-making processes at these two universities?

The answer: probably much more so at Nebraska than at California.  Though the decisions at both universities were made by the board of regents, the two boards have very different appointment processes.

In California, the state constitution mandates the appointment process for the board of regents.  There are 26 members on the board.  18 members are appointed by the governor and serve 12 year terms, 7 members are ex officio members which include the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the state assembly, and various officers of the alumni association that serve one-year terms. There is also a student member appointed by the board, who serves a one-year term.

The University of Nebraska board of regents, on the other hand, is almost entirely elected by the general public.  The board has 8 voting members serving 6-year-terms, all of which are elected by the public in the 8 districts within the state, and 4 non-voting members serving 1-year terms, who are student body presidents from each of the four campuses.

The selection process for the board of regents and the terms of service ensure that, relatively speaking, the public exerts a more direct control on the University of Nebraska.   In contrast, despite the tradition of grass-root democracy and the notorious state-wide referendum process in California, the public control over major decisions in its university system is surprisingly meager and indirect.

Sure, the governor is theoretically accountable to the public for both his policy choices about the university system and his regent appointments, but I doubt that those issues are the most salient ones on the minds of voters during any election. Thus, depending on which side of the fence you are on, you can either call the Nebraska system “more accountable to the public” or say that the University of California “enjoys a greater degree of autonomy.”

Given the more direct public control, we can expect that the decisions made by the University of Nebraska will likely reflect the mood and ideologies of its constituency more accurately than California.  The regents of the University of California, on the other hand, will more likely make controversial or unpopular decisions, because there are minimal consequences to themselves.

The drastic tuition hike that the regents of the University of California approved today once again spurred criticism that major public research universities are becoming more and more indistinguishable from private universities.  But long before its tuition begins to resemble that of a private university, the governing body of the University of California system already resembled an quasi-autonomous institution.

The inevitable question is, of course, which system is better?  More public control, or more autonomy?  That, of course, depends on what type of school you think a public university should be.

Light and untruth at Yale

lux et veritas

Lux et nonveritas?

It is not a good year for Yale.  First, its endowment dropped 30%, about $1 billion more than projected.  Now it is being sued for $50 million by a major private Korean university.  Dongguk University, a 103-year-old Buddhist institution, has filed a lawsuit against Yale, alleging negligence, recklessness, and defamation after Yale officials mistakenly identified a Dongguk professor as having received a Ph.D. from Yale.

In what has become known in the media as “Shingate,” Shin Jeong-ah, a Dongguk art professor, forged a certificate from Yale to get a job at Dongguk in 2005.  After questions about her credentials arose, Dongguk sent a letter to Yale asking for authentication on a document that Shin provided, which bore the signature of a Yale official and stated that Shin had received a Ph.D. from Yale.  The document was a fake, but the Yale official whose name appeared in the document confirmed its authenticity, apparently without checking Yale records.

After more inquiries from Dongguk, Yale finally investigated and then announced in 2007 that Shin did not receive a degree from Yale.  It denied at first, however, about having received the first inquiry in 2005.  Yale did not acknowledge its mistake until later that year and issued a letter of apology.  Shin eventually resigned and was convicted of falsifying records and of embezzlement.

Gongguk then brought suit against Yale in the federal district court of Connecticut, claiming that Yale’s mistake and negligence had damaged Gongguk’s reputation and resulted in loss contributions. The court rejected Yale’s effort to dismiss the suit in June.

What caught my eyes about this lawsuit is not just the fact that Yale is my alma mater, but because the suit highlights an oft-overlooked function of our higher education institutions.  When we think about the role of a university, we often think of it as either “the producer of knowledge” or as the educator of its students (though, as I pointed out in previous posts, universities that actually produce knowledge are fairly rare).  We often forget a third and equally important social function of the university — evaluating our youths, judging their competence, sorting them into various categories, and stamping them with grades and a degree.

Admittedly, grades and degrees are not everything, and their importance in a person’s career decrease with time.  But they are not nothing.  For better or for worse, our society — employers, schools, consumers, and the general public — rely on information about a person’s educational history and performance in school as tools to judge someone’s intelligence and ability.  In many cases, such as in the case of Ms. Shin, these credentials are the prerequisite for receiving benefits and opportunities.

It seems remarkable then that this important social function of our universities are largely self-regulated.  There is some oversight for the admissions process — the freedom of a public university to admit and reject students is somewhat limited by racial discrimination laws.  (For private universities, the incentive against racial discrimination comes largely from requirements attached to receiving federal funding and the tax exemption status.)  But once students enter the college gates, the evaluative function of the university is largely unsupervised due to the academic abstention doctrine.  At least theoretically, a professor can grade papers by throwing them down the stairs and assign letter grades based on where the paper lands, and a student has no legal recourse if the university refuses to act.

The lack of legal recourses for students implies that the university has no legal duty towards them to provide a fair, impartial, and non-arbitrary evaluation process.  As a society, we trust the universities themselves to perform this self-regulation.  This trust — whatever its roots are — has deep roots in the legal community.  Lawsuits against schools over alleged unfair grading policies have been largely unsuccessful.

The Dongguk lawsuit challenges this notion from another angle.  At issue is not the responsibility of the university towards its students, but towards third parties who might rely on the university’s representation about its students (or, in this case, its non-student).  The logic, if extended, could create legal duties in other situations.  Could an employer prevail in a suit against a university for sloppy record-keeping that mistakenly identified a C-student as an A-student?  Could a scholarship committee prevail in a suit against a college or university after discovering that the high grades of an award recipient resulted from random or arbitrary grading practices?

Realistically speaking, the chances of the Dongguk suit actually going to trial is slim.  The strong rhetoric from both parties reflect attempts to stake out better negotiation positions that would lead to a favorable settlement.  The suit would probably never result in precedent-setting law or any real duties on the part of the university.  But alas, one can dream.

Is higher education a luxury good?

luxury goods

Mmmmmm... luxury...

My post about merit scholarships and how they reflect on our notion of higher education got me thinking: do we in fact treat higher education like a luxury?  In economics, a “luxury” good is defined as a good for which demand rises disproportionately when income rises, and decreases disproportionately as income decreases.  In economic lingo, a luxury good exhibits high elasticity of demand.

The concept is in contrast to “necessity” goods, for which demand is not related to income and there is low elasticity of demand.  There are also “normal” goods, where demand rises proportionately as income increases, and “inferior” goods, where demand decreases as income increases.

Looking at education as any other types of goods or services that people can purchase, we might ask how its demand relate to income levels, and in turn, what type of good it is.  The question is hard to answer for primary and secondary education, because every state has some form of compulsory education laws, which usually require children to be educated up to the age of 17 or 18.  Because primary and secondary schools are free for children from low-income families, it is difficult to measure what the level of demand would have been at various levels of income.  (But private primary and secondary school education is probably a luxury good.)

Governmental subsidy for primary and secondary education suggests that at least conceptually, we treat those types of schools as necessity goods that should be guaranteed even for people who cannot afford to purchase them.  Other good examples of government subsidies include low-income housing, food stamps, and medicare/medicaid, which reflect our belief, as a society, that shelter, food, and medical care are necessity goods for our citizens.  This explains why, even in times of recessions, though states have had to cut the education budget, no one dreams of eliminating either the public school system entirely or the requirements for compulsory education.

But what about higher education?  There is no equivalent legislation to require or subsidize postsecondary education.  People are free to attend or forgo colleges and universities as they choose.  Demand (in the form of enrollment rates) is therefore easier to measure.

Conventional wisdom suggests that enrollment in colleges should increase during bad economic times, because the opportunity costs of colleges — in the form of lost income — decreases, and those who cannot find a job or are laid off would flock to the schools to improve their skills and “wait out” the recession.  As I have noted in a previous postenrollment at community colleges are indeed soaring in recent hard economic times.  Over 90% of community college presidents say that their enrollment has been more than the previous January.  Some have called the increases unprecedented.

But the same growth has not been experienced by the more expensive colleges and universities in the nation.  According to surveys conducted by several national education associations this past spring, More than 65% of high schools reported more students applying to public colleges rather than private colleges compared to previous years.  Nearly one-third of private colleges expect freshman enrollment to decline in the academic year of 2009-2010.

The data suggests that there are at least two types of education goods  There are the cheaper public 2-year colleges.  They can be deemed inferior goods because demand for them tends to rise as income drops and drop as income rises.  There are also private colleges and universities.  The more expensive public universities, especially for out-of-state students, can also be grouped in this category.  They are luxury goods because demand decreases sharply when income decreases, and climbs rapidly as income climbs.

The picture is complicated a bit by the generous financial aid that many private universities offer to its students.  At Harvard University, for example, parents in households that make less than $60,000 are not expected to contribute at all to college costs, and households that make less than $180,000 are expected to contribute about 10% of their income.  Need-based scholarships have also replaced student loans.   Other elite universities have followed suit and instituted similar financial aid programs.  An education at those universities, at least for those in the lower-middle- or middle-class families, are essentially free.  Even for upper-middle-class families it is fairly low-cost.  Demand for these “goods” should therefore exhibit relatively low elasticity.

But it seems that education at the vast majority of private, four-year colleges is a luxury good and will be hard-hit by this recession.

What merit scholarships say about us

Who should the college gates keep out?

Who should these gates keep out?

The College Board released data on Tuesday that shows substantial increases in tuition at public colleges in the country last year.  Prices increased by an average of 6.5% last year, despite low inflation rates and a negative consumer price index.  The tuition hike is yet another symptom of the state budgetary crisis, which have resulted in cuts in higher education spending.  This created shortfalls for state universities and colleges that must then be made up by increased payments from students.

The budgetary crisis has led some states to reconsider their merit scholarship programs.  More than 15 states currently have scholarships for the state’s public universities awarded according to  student grades, class ranks, and standardized testing scores.  While merit scholarships seem like a fairly standard and uncontroversial practice, at least for private universities, critics charge that public universities ought not to have them, because these programs drain financial resources away from students who have greater financial needs.

The argument is simple: recipients of merit scholarships–those with good grades, good SAT scores, etc.–tend to be students from more affluent families, who are more able to afford college and who would likely receive private scholarships anyway.  The limited resources should be saved for students who truly need it, who would not be able to attend college without it.

This type of criticism brings out an important debate about the educational mission of public universities.  It also reveals a tension between research universities and teaching-oriented schools such as community colleges.

My co-author on these blogs, Adam, has already written about the function of the universities as producers of knowledge.  The reality, however, is more complicated.  Realistically speaking, relatively few of the public universities in this country actually engage in the exalted activity of knowledge production.  Out of the nearly 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., only 150 institutions receive more than $40 million in federal research grants.  Among those, about 60 universities grant more than half of all the doctoral degrees in the country.  30 of those are public universities.  We can assume that knowledge-production goes on mostly in those large research universities.

The overwhelming number of colleges do not “produce” knowledge.  Their mission is more mundane: teaching the 18.2 million students that enroll in an undergraduate program each year.  There are, for example, nearly 1,200 2-year community colleges in the U.S., educating nearly half of the total undergraduate population.

As is typical of recessions, enrollment at these community colleges has been soaring as cost-conscious students and parents look for cheaper alternatives.  The budgetary cuts on education by many states, therefore, could not have come at a worse time.  It’s hardly surprising that merit scholarships seems like a classic example of a nonessential expense that begs to be cut.

But merit scholarships have a more complex rationale as well.  They were usually instituted to encourage top students in a state who might otherwise leave the state and go elsewhere for college to stay within the state.  Presumably, these students would then remain after college, become productive members of the workforce and contribute tax dollars to the state.  Attracting these students would also increase the prestige and the ranking of the in-state universities and in turn attract other students from out of state.

It seems that, in times of economic recession, when middle-class and upper-middle-class households are feeling most squeezed by the downturn and sensitive to price differences, this type of merit scholarships would be at its most effective.  If a state is looking to attract top students, both homegrown and abroad, it should expand, rather than contract, its merit scholarship programs right now.

Which brings me back to my original question of the basic educational mission of public universities — is it to give as many citizens as possible the opportunity to attend college, or is it to educate only, or preferably, the best and the brightest, because educating them brings more benefits to the state (and perhaps to society)?  This, in turn, probes our notion of what education is: is it a basic right that should be enjoyed by the many, or is it a kind of luxury, a privilege that society confers on the talented and skilled (and rich) few?  We can also see that in these questions, the mission of the community colleges (fulfilling the more democratic mission of educating the masses) is at tension with the mission of the public research universities (competing with the private universities and catering to the talented few).

In time of economic prosperity, it was possible that both missions could co-exist peacefully.  But a time of scarcity brings these tensions to the fore.

Politics, political science, and the production of knowledge

My last post discussed the costs associated with judicial supervision of the academic system, where I argued that such intervention undermines the purpose of a university. Today, however, I learned of a different kind of intervention. In a recent proposal, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), suggested that the National Science Foundation, the federal agency in charge of funding scientific projects, stop “wasting any federal research funding on political science projects“.

CoburnThis is no small potatoes. The NSF, with a budge of over $6 billion, funds about 20 percent of all federally supported research at American colleges and universities. Though political science research would presumably continue, it would no doubt take a hit if Coburn’s proposal is approved. A $9 million hit, to be exact.

Presumably, the proposal is motivated by the idea that political science departments don’t conduct valuable research (it’s hard to discern what Coburn’s idea of value is, however), and that the money could be spent more efficiently elsewhere. Indeed, Coburn said that network television and cable news stations provide a myriad of answers to the questions political scientists are engaged with.

There are at least two problems with Coburn’s proposal. First, is the idea that a politician, who is probably not very well versed in the academic literature, seems to think, based on scant evidence, if any, that an entire scientific field is worthless. I’m saying this is a problem because the NSF, which is a federal agency comprised of experts and which also employs scientists to determine how the funds will be disbursed, does not seem to think the field is worthless. The NSF actually does maintain regular contact with the academic and research community to assess the situation.  It is unclear, then, what the criteria for Coburn’s proposal are, and he would do well to articulate them.

More importantly, and on a more philosophical level, Coburn’s argument demonstrates a misunderstanding regarding the production of knowledge. This misunderstanding is so severe and so widely shared, I think, that a fuller elaboration is necessary.

Knowledge is produced today mainly in two settings, market and non-market. In the market setting, knowledge is produced for commercial purposes and basically follows the supply and demand curves. If the public demands a product or service, or if developers sense a need for such product or service, then efforts to produce that product will take place and knowledge will be accrued in the service of that and future products. The knowledge produced in the market setting, therefore, is dependent on market needs. If the market doesn’t need a product right now, then it will most likely not be developed, and the knowledge won’t be gained.

Knowledge can also be produced in non-market settings, such as universities, government laboratories, think tanks, and the like. Because the knowledge is developed outside the market, it doesn’t have to meet its demands.

Already we can see the difference. In the market setting, knowledge is produced instrumentally, to bring about a product. On this view, knowledge is the means to produce an end. But knowledge can also be considered as a product by itself, which is what the non-market (academic) setting is mostly concerned with. If we think of knowledge as having these two meanings, then we can point to a market failure in the production of knowledge. The knowledge that we get from the political pundits Coburn referred to is knowledge produced to achieve something else, for example high ratings. The market is therefore ill-equipped to produce the knowledge as product that universities, and political science departments, produce.

Coburn is being terribly short sighted here. It could indeed be that some political science scholarship does not reap immediate rewards. However, the nature of the production of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and its interaction with market based knowledge production, is that it produces more knowledge. How we come to know something invariably depends on all the trials and errors and progress that preceded it. Cutting funding is to be oblivious to that . It harms the production of knowledge.

Is nothing sacred?

Reading Stanley Fish’s essay, one gets the sense that the answer is no. Judicial intervention in academic proceedings is on the rise, and it poses a threat to academic freedom. More importantly, it calls into question the longstanding and venerable traditions of academic practices. In her post, Greta critiques Fish’s concerns and, with some reservations perhaps, welcomes this new trend of abandoning the judicial doctrine of academic abstention.

I, however, am not so optimistic. I see several problems with judicial control of academic affairs, which I will highlight below. I do want to make clear that when I refer to academic affairs I don’t mean the regular employment issues that every institution encounters, or the regular contractual matters that a university is engaged in, such as the leasing of property. I mean the “hardcore” academic stuff, such as hiring, grading, deciding on the curriculum, and, of course, tenure.

First, it’s not so clear to me why courts would be the solution to the problems discussed in Fish’s essay and Greta’s post. I am concerned here with judicially administrable standards, and indeed, how those standards would be derived, especially when evaluating a colleague’s performance. I realize that claims of institutional competency are becoming cliche, but it’s hard for me to see how a court can evaluate whether a physicist should or should not have gotten tenure.

To this claim we can add the panoply of claims about academic freedom, institutional independence, the importance of creating a safe environment for peer-review, and the like. Moreover, making test scores actionable will most likely create a culture of entitlement among students for whom the value of hard work and accepting failure as a part of life should be part of the college experience, and, indeed, of growing up. However, I don’t want to talk too much about these arguments, not because they are unimportant – they are. But rather because they’re familiar to the point of banal (although it’s a good idea to keep them in mind).

What bothers me more is the kind of academic culture we’re cultivating by having the courts oversee such processes. The real problem with judicial review of academic affairs (in the way that I defined them) is not simply judicial competence, but the importance of preserving a space free of judicial interference. Yes, I’m actually making the point that even if some academic processes are not always perfect, I still don’t want to see the courts involved.

Universities are not simply institutions of learning and accreting knowledge. They fill a vital purpose in our society – that of producing knowledge, maintaining a repository of ideas and facts, and being a safe haven for innovation, contemplation, and, yes, wisdom.

But that’s not all. What makes universities unique is their institutional history. Universities don’t simply occupy a place among our many institutions. They have developed, ever since the third century (in China), in a particular way. One defining feature is the quest to free the university from external institutional controls. Indeed, our definition of what constitutes a university cannot be separated from the way it evolved over time. Its telos is (partly) to maintain institutional independence so that it can exercise its own criteria of evaluation. Of course, and here I agree with Greta, these criteria can’t be capricious or arbitrary. But the academic process itself seeks to minimize capriciousness through the use of peer-review mechanisms and intersubjective verification processes.

Sure, such processes can never be perfect, but judicial supervision, and the knowledge of judicial overhang is not only imperfect in the sense that it introduces its own institutional limitations and difficulties, but it risks jeopardizing precisely the things for which we value the university and the academe as having a unique role to play in our lives and societies.

Subjecting all institutions to the same judicial standards of propriety and fairness not only belies a certain simplicity and untested faith in the courts, but it fails to recognize the virtues of having an institution that, by its nature, should be evaluated differently. And it fails to acknowledge the role universities play and how they came to have that role.

Related post: The costs of academic freedom