The advertisements in a newspaper are more full of knowledge in respect to what is going on in a state or community than the editorial columns are.
Henry Ward Beecher
The editorial board of the Los Angeles times weighed in on December 29 on the funding situation of the UC system with Finally, UC gets budget attention . This latest Times editorial joined earlier ones about the UC in demonstrating a certain naivety on the part of the Times editorial board in matters of higher education in California. The editorial strongly supports President Napolitano's solution to the UC problems - send more money - and egregiously mischaracterizes Governor Brown's proposals as "mechanistic". If only the UC issues were simply about "budget"!
The research university provides many critical societal benefits, but it also provides the most expensive collegiate education yet invented. The American research university grew up during the last 60 years, which was a period when the American economy moved strongly upward on the average. The latter part of this period was also a time in which many individuals and governments spent even more than they made, funding desired activities with increasing debt. As a society we became unsustainably over-leveraged. Governor Brown has made some efforts to cut back on California's enormous overspending and overcommitting, but he has only scratched the surface and more radical steps are likely to be necessary in the future. Return to the halcyon days of yore is highly unlikely!
There is no rational reason to believe that the research university generally and the UC specifically has magically reached its optimal organization and mission either under the former "flush"times of spending, or the new "realistic" times of spending. Thus preserving the status quo of the UC should not be a priority - the priority should be to evaluate how the UC can best be organized to meet California's current and future needs, priorities, and resources, and then working toward that forward-looking organization.
What should be the key roles of a public research university in California? Others will certainly have their own lists, but mine is topped by the obligation of the of the public university to provide education and research needed to support the health of the economy in the state. The education component must relate to both the number of people educated, and the quality of the education.Many of the other roles that a public university should play, such as enabling and encouraging economic and social mobility, are closely tied into this role.
Without trying to be exhaustive, here are four issues that must be addressed if the UC is to play this key role effectively in the future:
1.One of the 800 lb gorillas typically ignored in budget discussions around the UC is the future workforce needs of California. The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that by 2025, California will have a shortfall of about 1 million college graduates compared to the needs of California's increasingly complex economy. Since roughly 75% of bachelors degrees in California are produced by the UC and CSU, it is obvious that the UC must take the lead in meeting this shortfall. It is equally obvious that the UC with current organization and approach can only provide the necessary ramp-up in degrees if resources are greatly increased - which is highly unlikely to occur given all the competing (and increasing) pressures for state funds. (In the present budget kerfuffle, Napolitano is proudly promising an expansion of 5,000 slots system wide. That is just a "round-off" change compared to the problem.) It is this recognition that lead Governor Brown to make some of his so-called "mechanistic" proposals. Whether they are the best proposals to resolve the problems can be debated, but at least he acknowledges this critical issue which is ignored by those who are focusing on protecting the status quo.
2.Not only is the ability of the status quo UC to educate the needed number of students over the next decade questionable, but its ability to deliver the even higher quality education demanded by the times deserves some discussion. There are an increasing number of studies showing graduates of all types of higher education institutions (including the highest ranked research universities) did not learn much of what we thought they learned. The UC universities are justifiably thought of as among the best in the world, but unfortunately that reputation says little about undergraduate educational outcomes: research universities reputations depend primarily on faculty research and the graduate teaching that accompanies that research. I know of no data that suggests the UC undergraduate education is either better or worse than the norm in research universities, but the data increasingly indicate that that norm is not sufficient to define high quality education in an increasingly competitive world.
3.Student body characteristics have also changed greatly over the past few decades, and will change even more rapidly in the coming years. The percentage of students at 4 year institutions who are full time students has been dropping for years, and among those who are full time, the percentage who work over 20 hours a week has been increasing. These changes are occurring because of growth in several key parameters such as educational costs, percentage of undergraduate students who are older than the traditional 18-22 group and thus more likely to have a family, and numbers of college students from lower income families. Students are increasingly thinking and responding like customers, and expecting that institutions will meet their needs rather than offering an idealized four- year package defined in more homogeneous and static times. To continue to attract the best students in the future, the UC must develop a flexibility of program that allows individual students to gain an excellent education on a schedule that fits their financial and family situations and advances their own educational goals. Some students will certainly want to to receive a traditional four year residential education, but others will be much better served by more flexible options. To provide this flexibility will require very significant changes in institutional structure and outlook.
4.One might also argue that one of the roles of a state research university should be to attract the best and brightest students from around the country and the world to the state. After all, studies show that students are very likely to stay in the region where they go to college By looking at Silicon Valley firms, one can see an example of the contributions that are made to the California economy by non-California natives who were attracted here by higher education. If one were to conclude that this is a significant role for the UC, then treating out-of-state students as cash cows carries a significant risk.
Interestingly, the very high cost of running the research university and the quality of the undergraduate learning are related issues, as explained by Christensen, Horn, Soares, and Caldera (CHSC) in Disrupting College. The research function of the university and the teaching function are organized, funded, and carried out in very different ways - in other words, they have very different business models. As CHSC show, an organization that utilizes several business models simultaneously incurs very large overheads, leading to very high cost. In addition, the constraints imposed by running multiple business models simultaneously means that no one function can be optimized. That is, each function is likely to be more costly and less effective than it would be if it were being done independently. In a research university, the emphasis is on bringing the research function as close to optimum as possible within the constraints of the system, which means that the education function is pushed to a significantly less optimal position. For example, the faculty reward system in a research university is extremely highly weighted towards research excellence, and teaching excellence generally receives at best only lip service. Thus there is little surprise when most faculty show little interest in time consuming study and implementation of newer, demonstrably more effective teaching methods. Because of this coupling, successfully addressing some of the core aspects of the high cost of the research university model is likely to produce better student learning outcomes and satisfaction.
Addressing the business model issues also potentially opens up increased opportunities to create alternative approaches and economies of scale that would enable the system to increase enrollments significantly and offer greater student flexibility while maintaining and increasing learning. A number of forward-looking universities that understand that the status quo is simply not sufficient for the future have begun to explore some of these alternative approaches. For example, MIT's preliminary report of The Institute Wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Undergraduate Education provides some fascinating brainstorming on the subject. That report discusses replacing courses with modules, broad integration of MITx- and edX- level online courses, competency-based evaluations, all leading to an unbundling of the traditional educational approach, which then offers potential for a "Student-Centric Reaggregation of Education Systems". The UC, to continue to be viewed as a leader in higher education, needs to lead the creation of the future instead of digging in to preserve the past.
Several UC campuses recently have suggested that they wanted "independence" from the system because of its stifling bureaucracy and high added cost. That would seem to suggest that in these difficult and changing times a thorough review of the system and its mission might be appropriate. Surely there are aspects of the system that have been good for California and the students, but likely there are aspects that do not lead to positive outcomes. Time to emphasize the former, and junk the latter even if that should turn out to be a "job killer" for some bureaucrats.
If I were to write the LA Times editorial page, I would argue that the UC should not expect additional taxpayer money or be allowed to make major increases in tuition unless it uses the increases to build for a future in a very different and challenging environment, rather than using the increases to support ultimately doomed efforts to preserve the past. But then I am not as wise as the Editorial Board of the LA Times.