Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How to Avoid the Tuition Trap: A Response to Christopher Newfield

In Unmaking the Public University, Christopher Newfield asks the fundamental question at the heart of UUP's opposition to the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEE&IA):

If the university is just another cog in an economic system that is about getting ahead, charging as much as you can, maximizing your returns, and buying your way to the top, why should the general public pay for it? Why should the general public, whose income has stagnated for thirty years, give more taxes to a system that lets the top 1 percent purchase a VIP seat, or that favors applicants from six-figure families? (182)

His question builds on what he calls "the tuition trap":

The public is worried about college affordability, but its public university raises its fees. The university thus implies it does not actually depend on public funding, since it has the private resource of higher tuition at its fingertips. The university may also deepen this impression--that it can do without more public funding--by saying how good it is in spite of public funding cuts. Even worse, it may declare strong public funding a thing of the past in order to justify tuition increases or expanded fund-raising. Taxpayers then reasonably ask, if the university does not need more money, why does it keep raising fees? And since it keeps raising fees, why should we give it more public money? (182)

In a recent post at remaking the university, Newfield turned his answers to these questions from last November into talking points for the March 4 protests. He correctly points out that at the University of California tuition increases don't actually succeed in raising much revenue (relative to the overall budget) and that the high-tuition/high-aid model puts universities on an accelerating treadmill that is not only impossible to keep up with for most, but also has real effects on access and affordability. The higher the tuition, the more student financial aid has to be increased, the more real student costs increase (even for those receiving financial aid), and the more in debt more students get (cf. Unmaking the Public University 187-189, 226-227).

Newfield is not the only analyst to have wrestled with the "tuition trap." Business officers and economists have been tracking it for years, as well. In a June 2005 study of tuition discounting from 1989-2004, Loren Loomis Hubbell and Lucie Lapovsky concluded:

Over the past 15 years, we have seen a dramatic rise in discounting. The stasis we see today could mean many things. There are several potential interpretations of willingness to pay and the effective use of enrollment management strategies to better maximize net tuition revenues. However, we continue to worry whether net tuition maximization and the commercialization of competitive pricing will become the next barrier to access. [my emphasis] Financially, greater stability in net tuition revenues will lead to greater stability for many institutions in budgeting and planning for the future.

While we believe that this is likely to be the case for the independent institutions, the outlook for public institutions could be quite different. The level of predictability of state support at these institutions has declined greatly in the past few years, leading to often-significant increases in tuition. The public sector is looking to understand how to effectively use tuition discounting to shape their classes and achieve their revenue goals. The action in tuition discounting will move to this sector of higher education. One area to watch: how the reduction in the price difference between public and independent higher education affects access. [my emphasis]

The higher public tuition levels go, the more attractive private colleges and universities look--especially to students from disadvantaged groups who can get into them--due to their large endowments and small student bodies that enable them to offer larger tuition discounts than public universities (or even go completely need-blind in admissions). But not everyone can get into highly selective colleges and universities--and most are not prepared to expand to solve the access problem generated by rising tuition at public universities.

That the interrelated crises of quality, affordability, and access are coming to a head was addressed directly by Paul Fain in The New York Times last November and indirectly by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) in their February summary of how federal stimulus funds have been mitigating state funding declines across the country. But nobody has put the problem (and the solution) better than Newfield himself:

high-quality, large-scale public education requires strong public funding.... [H]igh-quality education for elites is cheap, since there are not that many students involved. High-quality education for the great majority is expensive, and private sources are unable to support it....

Administrators looked to private funding to solve the problems that the ascent of private over public funding helped create. The fact remains that private funding can build great universities for elites, but private funding cannot and will not do the same for society's majority....

[A]ccess can coexist with quality only by restoring and increasing public funding for the public university. Private sponsorship can support novel and important programs on a limited scale; in public education, it is not enough to fund high-quality core operations. High-quality mass higher education requires mass public funding: there is no way around how the numbers work.... It is only through public funding that the whole society can contribute to forming the next generation, rather than relying on the generally stagnant incomes of their students' parents.... (Unmaking 193-194, 271, 273)

So if I agree with Newfield's analysis of the "problem with privatization" at UC and his proposed solutions, how can I have been offering my qualified support for the PHEE&IA all month? Why do I believe that it actually represents SUNY's best hope for avoiding the tuition trap?

First, we need to understand that total state support for public higher education is indispensable. Check out the raw totals and percentage increases/decreases in recent years. While state support for SUNY operations will fall below $1B if the Governor's cuts go through, total support for higher education crossed the $5B mark. If all of that indeed went to SUNY (obviously, some goes to CUNY), you'd need an endowment on the order of $100B to comfortably replace that chunk of change. That's why it's so difficult to scale the elite privates' funding model up. (More on endowments soon.)

Second, we need to understand that total state support for public higher education remains a bargain for taxpayers in the vast majority of states. Check out the charts for how much each state spends per $1000 in personal income and per capita in FY09 and FY10. You'd be surprised how cheap NY's investment in public higher education really is. But you shouldn't be. The more you spread around the costs of higher education, the less it costs each person. That's just simple math. What we really need, then, is a base of federal support for public higher education that states and systems can build on. (But that's a subject for another post.)

Third, in the absence of that federal commitment or of widespread citizen/taxpayer/student pressure for it, and in the face of declining state revenues (5 straight quarters in NY, according to the Rockefeller Institute) and an end to federal stimulus funding to the states, there is very little chance that New York won't cut public higher education as much as it can in 2011-2012. To keep the shock to the system from being fatal, there is very little chance that New York won't raise tuition, as governors and legislatures always have in financial crises--haphazardly, as part of an austerity program, and the result of horse-trading and political negotiations, rather than any kind of strategic planning process or education-centered budgeting program. Whether or not the PHEE&IA becomes law, then, we're very likely to see reduced state support and higher tuition in SUNY's immediate future. (While I'm hopeful that reiterating the argument that public higher education can drive regional and state-wide economic development will free up some new state funding sources for SUNY, I'm not holding my breath. More on this topic later, too.) Without the PHEE&IA, there's nothing stopping the state from sweeping tuition dollars into the general fund to close the ever-growing projected deficits in New York.

Fourth, the PHEE&IA lays the groundwork for a better way of determining SUNY's tuition and enrollment policies and for understanding what they can and can't accomplish. With the power to determine these policies comes greater responsibility--for transparency, accountability, and results. Last week, I argued that critics of the PHEE&IA are completely missing the boat when it comes to SUNY's draft tuition policy. Today, however, I want to suggest that the SUNY comprehensive tuition policy draft doesn't go nearly far enough in recognizing and avoiding the tuition trap that Newfield has identified. The more the procedural checks and balances remain within the SUNY administration's and trustees' purview, the greater the probability they'll walk right into the tuition trap.

What SUNY needs is to really hit the reset button when it comes to setting tuition and enrollment policy. That means bringing in constituencies with a variety of interests to act as watchdogs on each other from the very start of the process. Students' primary concern is access and affordability, although they, too, care about quality. Faculty's interests are primarily about quality, although they, too, care about access and affordability. Alumni's primary concern is quality, although as parents they may well end up caring more about access and affordability. Administrators can gain a lot more than they lose by bringing them in from the start, via student government, faculty governance/union leadership, and alumni associations, at both campus and state-wide levels. For one thing, doing this would minimize the possibility of the kind of student and faculty protests that we saw on March 4th in California. If representatives from these various groups were working together from the start in developing a strategy for enhancing SUNY's quality, accessibility, and affordability, which would end with the presentation of a united front when it comes to the balance of taxpayer and student/family support sought in a given year, not only would the decision-making process be improved, but its legitimacy and efficacy would also be enhanced.

Who better to make sure that SUNY stays true to its mission than the very people and groups most invested in its success? The PHEE&IA can provide an opportunity for SUNY to avoid the tuition trap, learn from successes and mistakes in other states and systems, and set a national standard for inclusiveness in financial decision-making. It's up to SUNY student, faculty, and alumni leaders to make sure the administration and trustees understand this--and act on it.

[Update 1 (7:34 am): It's worth noting that my proposal would also go far to closing the trust gap that the SUNY/UUP debates reveal. The relative silence of faculty governance across SUNY has enabled many to assume the dispute is purely and simply between management and labor, administration and faculty. In the conference call today among governance leaders, I'm going to be advocating for the UFS to take a public stand in its own, independent, analysis of the PHEE&IA.]

[Update 2 (9:24 am): Looks like Newfield and I aren't alone in our desire to see the public matter in public higher education. Check out SUNY Plattsburgh professor Colin Read's case for SUNY as an engine of economic development and the various perspectives in the March 14th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, particularly Twain scholar and Pitzer president Laura Skandera Trombley's.]

[Update 3 (3/16/10, 3:27 pm): It's worth noting that the draft tuition policy defines the "Executive Committee/Chancellor's Cabinet" as "Advisory groups made up of representatives from senior management at SUNY System Administration, Faculty Senate, Faculty Council of Community Colleges and Student Assembly" (2). I'd like to see these organizations, a SUNY alumni organization, and UUP made equal partners with the SUNY System Administration.]

[Update 4 (3/26/10, 2:54 am): Smart analysis of the tuition trap and strategies to avoid it by Westminster College president Michael Bassis.]

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