Monday, November 7, 2011

The Story that Needs Changing

In the last few weeks I've given a number of talks on college campuses about the self-feeding devolutionary spiral in puliic university funding.  I've tried to describe the mechanisms that are continuing to accelerate decline, and identify points of resistance that could help with rebuilding.   The goal must remain mass quality rather than limited access to premium content.  Our higher ed system is stratified enough as it is, and "private good" solutions only make it worse.

Robert Mejia offers an overview of my "Rebuiling the Public University" talk at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign.  By coincidence, I spoke in the same room a few hours after UI-Urbana faculty had met their new systemwide president for the first time, and heard him speak directly about his plan to take control of enrollments away from each campus and centralize them systemwide.  This struck me as the kind of administrative exercise that makes an executive's mark without improving the institution itself, and that distracts attention from the deeper issues of rebuilding funding and upgrading academic goals.

An example of the deeper issue occurred the day after the coverage of the Illinois faculty meeting, in an article in the Los Angeles Times on how California public universities are leading the way in public tuition increases averaging over 8% last year.  The article started with a causal connection between legislative cuts to public funding and increases to student tuition.  But it then cited an expert saying that the real problem wasn't public funding cuts but public campus inefficiencies, particularly the inefficiency of faculty who don't teach enough.

My critique of the elements of this damaging story is posted on the University of Illinois Faculty Association page.  I would like such critiques to be part of a broader effort to change the public narrative about the everyday work of public universities, so that yahoo solutions can't so easily get dropped into the middle of articles to distract the reader from the real issue.

The real issue is that imposing higher teaching loads and more on-line instruction on public universities won't reverse the relentlessly growing gulf between elite privates and their once-elite public peers.  The economists Robert Archibald and David Feldman, in their recent book Why Does College Cost So Much?, note that the inaugural, 1987 edition of the U.S. News and World Report rankings had eight public universities in their top 25. In 2010 the top-25 includes exactly 1 public university (UC Berkeley, at #21). 

The rankings are of course rather silly, but they do include measures such a per-student expenditures and average student-teacher ratios. On these measures of quality, public universities have been allowed to decline for decades. The decline is directly connected to falling public funding, which has never been replaced by the private sources so ardently discussed, in spite of the decades their advocates have had to achieve this replacement.

The result is stark, in Archibald and Feldman's terms:
In 1980, public universities spend roughly seventy cents per full-time equivalent student for every dollar that private schools spent.  By the middle of the 1990s, that figure had fallen to fifty-three cents per dollar.  These changes have consequences (p. 237)
We already know where the combination of cuts and "efficiencies"is taking us -- towards a class hierarchy of private over public, in which the latter, who teach close to 4/5ths of all college students, are forced to lower quality further while pretending they are not.

Teaching processes can always be improved, but public university executives need a much tighter focus on closing the funding gap with private universities so that we can close the gap in quality of service. Playing around with alternatives to rebuilding funding will only make the public-private gap that much wider .

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