4th of 5 talks from The Operation of the Machine panel, UC Berkeley October 1, introduced by Prof. Colleen Lye
Members of the FSM had to fight for free speech on campus, as we still must. But they did not have to fight for a free university. They already had one. They succeeded at winning specific free speech protections. The free university, they took for granted.
For UC students in 2009 and 2011, Free UC was a nostalgic memory, like 78-RPM records and episodes of Marcus Welby, MD. They had to fight to block massive tuition hikes. They succeeded too—not in blocking those hikes, but in raising the political cost of hikes so high that UC & CSU tuition has been frozen for the past several years.
The University isn’t really that happy about this. They’ve used tuition hikes to top up revenues for decades now. Faculty aren’t really that happy about it either. Some of us oppose high tuition on the grounds that it damages access and the public functions of the university. But most faculty have given up on their senior managers’ ability to get correct public funding from the state. Most see high tuition, coupled with what’s called high financial aid, as inevitable, fated, predestined, and necessary to restoring UC quality.
In this context, when you oppose continued tuition increases, you are told that you are being selfish and shortsighted, and that maybe you don’t understand the generosity of UC financial aid.
You are told that low tuition is a subsidy to the rich. You don’t want to subsidize wealthy students, do you?
You are told that low tuition hurts the poor, because they have to subsidize students with their taxes. You don’t want to hurt the poor, do you?
You are told that low tuition is a political “non-starter.” You don't want to waste your time on lost causes, or tilt at windmills like Don Quixote, do you?
You are told that low tuition would undermine the high financial aid levels that have protected poor students from unaffordable fees, and that are now expanding to the middle class. You don’t want to hurt aid for low-income students, I’m sure.
You are told that low tuition would undercut improvements in teaching and learning—that educational quality depends on high tuition, and on more non-resident students paying even higher tuition than residents. You don’t want to lock in “limited learning” at Berkeley or anywhere else, I know.
So it looks like current tuition levels are a bare minimum, and that pretty soon they’re going to have to go even higher—we’re realists, and we agree that college graduates get the benefits of their degree so should pay most or all the cost. Don’t we?
But in reality, all five of these statements are wrong. The right answers point not simply to freezing tuition, which is one cause UC free speech was used for, but to rolling tuition back.
We can dispense quickly with first two statements—that Free UC subsidizes the rich by charging them far less than they could afford, and is a burden to the poor, by forcing them to subsidize students at Berkeley where they can’t go. The way to deal with these is through progressive taxation at the state level. For a family making between $300,000 and $400,000 a year, there could be a higher ed surcharge of $1700.18. Someone making $17,000 a year would pay an additional $5.13—or nothing, if there were a threshold. I’ll explain those strange numbers in a minute. For now, the main point is that the tax system can equalize burdens for all public institutions according to ability to pay. That’s the basic idea of progressive taxation.
The third truthy statement is that low or no tuition is a political non-starter. The truthiness part is that it is non-starter only for a portion of the political and business class, who have no interest in paying more taxes themselves to lower college costs for the masses of California students. Regent Blum thinks low-tuition is a non-starter. Regent Gould thinks low tuition is a non-starter. Columnist Dan Walters thinks low-tuition is a non-starter. Former President Yudof thought low tuition was a non-starter. Former Chancellor Birgeneau thought low tuition was a non-starter. On the other hand, in polls Californians think low tuition is a great idea. They think the tuition is too damn high--they’ve been saying this since the early 1990s. They think somebody should pay more taxes, and recently 40% said they should pay more taxes themselves. The need for high tuition is a social construction, a fabrication, an artifact of a passing era, a conventional belief. It can be changed. Changing beliefs is a purpose of free speech, of thought itself, of movements of the kind that have brought us together today.
But, they say, Free UC is a nice idea but we just don’t have the money. Actually, we do! The Council of UC Faculty Associations did the math, and showed to get tuition back down to 2000-01 levels $5300 in today’s dollars), and state funding back up to spend 20001 amounts per student, would cost to the median individual California taxpayer , each year, a total of $50. Restoring full quality and affordability for the state’s 1.6 million public college and university students would cost the state median taxpayer about the same as a holiday bottle of single malt scotch. That would get us halfway back to a Free UC
So Free UC wouldn’t help the rich, and wouldn’t hurt the poor, and wouldn’t cost too much. We’re on the fourth defense of high tuition. What about all that high financial aid—the Blue and Gold Plan, the Middle Class Scholarships, Cal Grants plus Pell Grants, Berkeley’s own programs--that have inoculated low-income students from high tuition? Well actually, they haven’t.
As you know all too well, students must cover not only tuition but also the full “cost of attendance,” which includes rent, food, clothes, books, and similar everyday expenses. On-Campus cost of attendance is over $33,000. High overall costs make a huge difference in who gets to complete.
High tuition means that degree completion depends on ability to pay, which depends on family income--and debt capacity.
Source: Tom Mortenson, PostSecondonary Education Opportunity 2010.
Nationally, 71% of the top quartile completes their degree. 10% of the bottom quartile completes their degree. Note too that as you move from the top to the next income quartile (which starts at around $90,000 for a family and ends at somewhat above $50,000), attainment falls by half.
What does the High tuition /high aid model do to fix this? Does it give grants to low-income students so they don’t have to borrow? No. It gives them grants to cover a portion of their total costs of attendance. And then they have to borrow to cover the rest of their costs. Here's what that looks like broken down by income.
Average Cumulative Debt by Parent Income Band: 2011-12 UCB Graduating Cohort
Poor students borrow about as much as rich ones. Even more dramatically, they borrow a much higher share of their family income –over 60% in the lower brackets.
(The situation is worse than it appears: this chart folds non-borrowers into the averages, and it excludes parental borrowing through the PLUS and similar programs e.g. Figure 1-7).
UC Berkeley expends significant money and effort to mitigate the damage to affordability of the high tuition model, and yet after all that work it keeps borrowing to pretty close to the national average.
Median Debt Levels of 2007-08 Bachelor's Degree Recipients by Income Level
Source: College Board, Trends in College Pricing
High tuition does not fight inequality—it feeds inequality. High tuition does this by keeping college proportionately more expensive for low-income students—who are disproportionately students of color. Since college is relatively more expensive for them, they are less likely to finish college. High tuition is not worth keeping for its high financial aid. The aid system is a debt system. It makes inequality worse.
Finally, wouldn’t low tuition undercut improvements in teaching and learning? No again. The university’s limited spending on learning is what limits learning—we spend less than half of “core funds” on instruction (Display II-3). Instruction is the one thing that public officials clearly understand the value of paying for. As tuition takes over paying for instruction, politicians have ever less incentive to rebuild public funding, or help UC keep enough places for California students.
Other private sources expect their funds to stay with targeted projects. This is true of philanthropy, where up to 99% of funds raised are restricted to special activities. It is true of research funding, which must be spent on particular research—and which overall loses money for the university, requiring additional subsidies from internal university sources. It is true of instruction, where the state is now subtracting from the General Fund the costs of the Middle Class Scholarship program. University costs go up as the university tries to replace lost public funding, and little of that helps instruction.
In the fifty years since Berkeley students fought for free speech, all students have been steadily losing “free university.” Every financial aid fix has been tried, every bank has devised a student loan program, every scam and for-profit rip-off has been deployed. One result is the world’s highest cost of higher education. Another result is the destructive explosion of student debt. A third is decades of stagnating degree attainment. We have in fact spent most of the last five decades privatizing public universities. The results of the experiment are in. Privatization has failed to deliver low costs, or low fees, or low debt, or more degrees for low-income students, or high quality. Privatization in the form of high tuition has undermined the public purposes of public universities.
Now we have reached a turning point. UC student protests froze tuition, and Gov Brown, the original austerity Democrat, is now enforcing this. Tuition freezes without funding increases aren’t sustainable. The next step is to rebuild public funding. It won’t work to say the university needs more money in the abstract, that we’ve been trying to save and have done our best. What will work is laying out the student outcomes of recovered public funding.
This is what the current no-tuition movement is about. It’s about inclusive, general, taxpayer based, whole-society-contributing public funding of the overall enterprise, and accountable to the overall public. Public universities uncover and develop the individual brilliance of regular smart people, those millions whose large but previously underdeveloped talents transformed the economy and the society in the past, and whose talents, on a mass scale, are needed to transform it again.
Now is not the time to scale back mass Bildung and return it to the ivory towers of our elite private universities that do excellent work in miniature. We need the thousand-foot mural art of public universities. This is going to require getting people to pay taxes for higher education again—an extra 50 bucks! The real goal should be free public university—Free UC. We need to use our free speech to call for that.