Monday, December 21, 2009

Possible bottom for California higher ed?

It’s no secret that California has a terrible budget situation, with the “perfect” storm of a dysfunctional legislature, unsustainable spending and wildly fluctuating revenues (tied to ordinary income taxes on the sale of personal homes and stock options).

One of the most impacted has been state funding of higher education, which has decreased 17% in the past two years. Both the 10-campus University of California (research universities) and the 23-campus California State University (teaching schools like SJSU) have put faculty and staff on involuntary furloughs with pay cuts of 4-10% and 9.3%, respectively — and made up the rest of the cuts with hefty tuition increases and class size increases. (The 2-year community colleges have also been hurt, but it’s harder to generalize because each set policy at the local level.)

I’ve held off commenting on this because it’s obviously impossible to write dispassionately about one’s own pay cut — or that salaries were below market even before the latest round of budget cuts. However, having seen many budget problems in the UC/CSU in the past 20 years, I think this has more potential than any to do permanent damage to both institutions.

The reality is that if the UC and CSU don’t get money, they have to either raise prices or cut costs (or both). Short-term cuts are hard to make with fixed costs (like campuses) and quasi-fixed costs (tenured faculty). Drastic action — like closing newer, weaker campuses in the UC and CSU system — is unlikely to happen in a three-way stalemate between politicians, administrators and the employee unions.

Certainly self-centered students (like high school and college students from every era of the past 40 years) have gone around protesting “do more for me.” In a telling indictment of our failed K-16 educational system — or the students’ narcissism — they have been blaming trustees of both systems for raising prices and canceling classes in the face of massive budget cuts. Economic ignorance is terrible thing, but of course students are not the only segment of society so afflicted.

What i find encouraging is that even if the kids are still clueless, some of the grownups are waking up. A report in the LA Times Monday says that parents of current and prospective college students have noticed the worsening conditions, and are vowing to do something about it.

Cal State Chico parent Bob Combs summarizes this view:

"We elect these officials, we donate money and we are the voice of our children," said Combs, a real estate agent. "If one of us is calling an Assembly member or Congress person, we're certainly much stronger if 10 of us are calling."

"The reason California's public higher education system has been so successful is that it provided a good education for a reasonable price, but that is changing," said Combs.
Combs is exactly right: in a republican form of government, the voters should tell the politicians what their budget priorities are and hopefully they’ll listen.

Sacramento doesn’t have magic buckets of money sitting around to give to higher ed, and indeed, most administrators expect the CSU/UC budget situation to be much worse in 2010-2011 than 2009-2010. Still, higher ed has taken a higher proportion of budget cuts than other state spending, probably because our unions are weaker than other public employee unions.

Zero-based budgeting would be nice, e.g. the state cutting out things it didn’t do 30 years ago because it can no longer afford to do so. Alas, a more likely outcome will be for legislators to hone their job-killing skills by raising taxes.

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