Monday, March 22, 2010

What Can New York Learn from Michigan and California When It Comes to Public Higher Ed?

In Unmaking the Public University (2009), Christopher Newfield takes a careful look at the fortunes of the University of Michigan and University of California as they have responded to "declining public money" by "increasing private funds" (174). He takes direct aim at the failure of Robert Zemsky, Gregory Wegner, and William Massy's Remaking the Public University (2005) to provide evidence of a "causal relationship between 'going to market' and new revenues" (175). Since this is the fundamental ground of dispute between the leadership of SUNY and UUP over New York's Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, it would make a big difference whether Newfield's analysis proves that it is structurally impossible for the PHEE&IA to produce new revenues for SUNY or simply identifies problems to avoid. Today, I'll follow up on my earlier response to Newfield by arguing that Unmaking the University actually supports the latter view.

I'll start by focusing on Newfield's attempts to rebut Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy's portrayal as a success story of the University of Michigan's strategy to "diversify its income sources" in response to a "deindustrializing state economy and falling tax revenues in the early 1980s" via "increas[ing] private fund-raising, continuously rais[ing] tuition, and support[ing] entrepreneurial faculty members in their quest for larger shares of both federal money and industry sponsorship" (174). To do that, Newfield points out that

  • UM was a "principal beneficiary" of a boom in public research funding from the early 1980s through the mid-2000s, sparked by federal research money for the health sciences, which is one of UM's areas of great strength (175);
  • even though UM already had a strong fundraising operation and the largest alumni base in the nation, its "receipts did not outpace philanthropic growth for American universities as a whole" (176);
  • even though UM raised tuition and the percentage of out-of-state students in each entering class sharply and often, "much of these revenues replaced lost state funding rather than offered new money" (176); and
  • UM's rank in "U.S. News & World Report's infamous reputational survey" declined from 8th in 1987 to 25th in 2003; its selectivity did not improve; with so many out-of-state students in the system and especially at Ann Arbor, UM failed to advance its original mission of "educating the population of Michigan itself" (which is "well below the national average in the percentage of the state's population that receives bachelor's or advanced degrees"); its share of African-American students declined so sharply that even after years of improvements, its 2005 freshman class's proportion of Africans Americans was about half the state's; and its share of students from lower-income families as measured by the percentage of students with Pell Grants was about half of UC Santa Barbara's (176).
Thus, it should be no surprise that Newfield concludes: "While UM has done an effective job of protecting its Ann Arbor flagship, it has not protected the quality of the UM system, of Michigan higher education overall, or of higher education access for the residents of the state" (176).  Highlighting the costs of the UM model is part of Newfield's larger strategy to convince other state systems not to try to imitate it.  His core argument that declining public funds can't even be replaced, much less augmented, by private fund-raising (in the form of tuition and private philanthropy), can be found on pages 183-189 of Unmaking the Public University, but for the greatest impact I suggest turning to the May 2006 study Current Budget Trends and the Future of the University of California by the UC Academic Council's University Committee on Planning and Budget, on which Newfield was a principal co-author.

I'll hit the high points for you via reference to both:

  • their report confirmed UC's own data (in which UC's share of California's general fund declined from 7% in 1970-1971 to 3.1% in 2006-2007) with "a dismal tale of an overall trend of declining education funding in a state with one of the largest concentrations of wealthy individuals and industries in the world," buttressed by such measures as "declining state share of 'UC Core Funds' (down to 45% around 2005 from 60% in 2001), and the state's declining contribution measured as a share of personal income" (UPU 185; cf. CBT 6 for a great chart that illustrates that state support for "that portion of the campus budgets that are directly concerned with the everyday educational mission" has declined from a peak above 75% in 1985-1986, to around 60% in both 1991-1992 and 2001-2002, to around 45% in 2005-2006; cf. CBT 18 for a chart that compares projected state support of "UC Core Funds" under the Compact to a restoration of 2001-2002 levels; cf. CBT 7 for UC's share of CA's general fund charted from 1985-2006; and cf. CBT 8 and 13 for UC's share of state personal income from 1985-2006, which declined from a high of near .38% in 1987 to near .20% in 2006);
  • their report projected that the May 2004 "Higher Education Compact" among UC, California State University, and the governor of California, would leave the UC system in 2010-2011 "about $1.2B a year behind its extrapolated 2001 funding level, and twice as much behind its extrapolated 1990 funding level (on a base of about $3.3B in state general fund money in 2001)" (UPU 185-186);
  • their report projected that under the Compact state funding per student would decline from a little over $13K in 2001-2002 to a little under $10K in 2010-2011 (UPU 186; cf. CBT 18-19 for more detail); and
  • their report noted that using private philanthropy to replace the lost state support under the Compact would require UC to raise $30B in new funding for its endowment--that is, pass Harvard within 5 years (CBT 22-23).
Unfortunately, the most recent national data that I could find used different measures than Newfield's committee's study--state support for higher education per $1000 in personal income and per capita, for FY 2008-2009 and FY 2009-2010--so without knowing CA's total personal income in those years, I can't determine how on-target its projections were (of course I'd have to ignore the bump from federal stimulus support). But even if the study overestimated the decline in public support of UC, its basic point that the Compact locked in post-9/11 cuts to state support of public higher education in California and put UC on a private fund-raising treadmill whose pace would be unsustainable for most schools in the system looks pretty prescient today.

Even more prescient, however, was the worst-case scenario that the study contemplated, which it called the "Public Funding Freeze" model. What does it entail?

Another downturn in state finances and continued political opposition to tax increases prompts state and University leaders to reluctantly concede that it would be better to conduct an organized shift away from public funding than to suffer further uncertainty amidst a new cycle of budget crises. They decide to become a "state-assisted university" and to "privatize" centrally and systematically. State leaders agree to cap the General Fund at 2005-2006 levels (in nominal dollars), to allow the General Fund share to decline to 15% of the university's budget (or about 1/3 of the "core") by the end of 2010-2011. (CBT 29)

In this situation, "the public spends half the share of its income on UC tha[n] it had a decade earlier (down to 0.15% of per capita personal income by 2011)" (UBU 187; cf. CBT 29 for the summary table). The report's executive summary explains the ramifications of such a freeze:

The state continues to carry a structural deficit, remains politically polarized, has expensive needs in health and human services, and awaits new budgetary surprises such as unfunded health care obligations for retired state employees. These problems may encourage some to move UC toward a "high-tuition/high-aid" model in tandem with aggressive private fundraising, increased industry partnerships, and expanded sales and services. This fourth scenario, however, cannot actually be achieved with private fundraising: to obtain the billion dollars that will be lost by comparison with the Compact, and to obtain it in unrestricted payouts, the University would need to raise $25 billion in unrestricted gifts. To reach the 2001-02 funding level, more than $54 billion would be needed. Alternately, tuition increases big enough to fill the gap would shrink enrollments and, at the same time, reduce the quality of the university’s student body. The overall UC system would continue in name but not in reality, as the most prestigious campuses draw on a national student pool and collect large amounts of non-resident tuition while other campuses struggle with diminished resources, fewer programs, and reduced research capacity. Wasteful intercampus competition may arise, in part in the form of the budgetary fragmentation that the Master Plan had in its time brought to a close. Since undergraduate instruction is disproportionately dependent on the state General Fund, such changes would seriously damage the assumption of a high-quality curriculum for all qualified students. The Public Funding Freeze would end the UC system as we know it. (CBT 2; cf. 29-34 for the gory details)

Newfield's commentary in Unmaking the Public University says it all: "The outcome would be something like what Michigan, New York, and Texas have now: systems where relatively poor and academically struggling institutions coexist with one or two research flagships in a ph[]ase stratification" (189).

In other words, following the UM model would mean that California would move from a situation where all eligible high school graduates could attend a public research flagship to 84% of them making do with "the more limited opportunities of a regional state college" (189). This would entail "major economic and sociocultural losses" (190):

State colleges have fewer resources, offer less or little research, and generally place fewer of their students in positions of social or professional leadership. Students coming out of them have lower incomes than students from major research universities (public or private) and pay less in taxes back to the states that educated them. On average, state college graduates have more limited prospects. States that send a higher proportion of their public university students to regional rather than research universities have lower average incomes, and, we can infer, more socioeconomic stratification within their college-educated middle classes. (190)

Newfield argues plausibly that what the majority of students gain at research universities via exposure to "both the results of advanced research and the process through which research creates knowledge" (190) and from the resulting "practices of intellectual independence" (191) are "more developed capacities to innovate and restructure systems on an ongoing basis" (192). But for a public university to successfully combine the quality of teaching at small liberal arts colleges with the exposure to advanced research methods and results of Ivy League universities, it needs significant state support for such an expensive and labor-intensive endeavor. When that support is withdrawn, "faculty are not hired or replaced, more teaching is done with less expensive lecturers and teaching assistants, class size is increased, and classes are dropped" (192). Private giving, by contrast, "is almost always restricted, and goes to targeted research, sports, trademark-building projects, and the special interests of donors" (192):

Private funding does not come in sufficient supply to support core operations: teaching lower-division courses, writing tutorials, calculus and bench laboratory experience, language instruction, seminar interaction, independent study, and well-staffed large lectures in which students continue to get adequate personal attention. Personal attention is the core element of high-quality mass higher education: the brilliant top will do fine on its own, but the other 95%--with plenty of potential but less experience, training, entitlement, and confidence--need the kind of highly developed teaching infrastructure that costs serious money. (193-194)

In both his co-authored study and book, then, Newfield has built a strong case that core university operations--high-quality mass teaching and research--couldn't be well-supported across the UC system in a budget freeze, even were tuition to be raised to $15K per year for in-state students. 

Now, in showing that Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy are wrong to accept both "the shift from general public funding to a 'user fee' model in which students and their families pay privately for their education" and the notion that "higher education [should seek to] replace[s] lost public funding with higher user fees" (175), Newfield does leave himself some wiggle room when he acknowledges that "[i]ncreasing 'user fees' is a traditional strategy that is fully compatible with public funding and does not in itself signal a new adaptation to market forces" (176). Sure, it's an effective critique of Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy's choice of UM as a key supporting example--rather than being both "market-smart" and "mission-centered," Newfield's analysis suggests that it is neither--but it also allows him to implicitly accept the existence of some tuition at public universities.  If it is invested directly into enhancements of teaching and research, if it augments a firm base of public support for core operations, and if it remains low enough to not act as a barrier to student access, then some tuition is justifiable.

But how to identify what a firm base of public support for public higher education ought to be?  Newfield's analysis suggests that we track the following measures in New York over long periods of time:
  • SUNY share of NY's general fund
  • NY general fund share of SUNY's operating budget
  • NY general fund share of SUNY's core operations
  • SUNY share of per capita personal income in NY
  • per capita personal income in NY invested in SUNY
  • amount per $1000 in personal income in NY invested in SUNY
If we use data trends and national comparisons to ask ourselves where we would like to see these numbers go in the future, why, and how to get there, then we can take a debate over the PHEE&IA that's so far relied mostly on tall tales, overheated rhetoric, and emotional appeals and turn it into something that will be useful to all concerned about the future of SUNY, whether or not the PHEE&IA passes.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to track down my favorite figure, the 4th on the above list. Knowing SUNY's share of NY per capita income would be the best way of comparing levels across the region and the country.

Some of this data is publicly available, though. From the Grapevine study I linked to above, I found out that I'm paying a little bit more than the state average into the SUNY system this academic year. But even if I broke into six figures (and I'm not even close), my total commitment to SUNY via taxes would be just over $525 per $100K. That's a lot more than I donate to Hamilton College each year (Princeton doesn't need my money). Restoring progressivity to NY's tax system would allow those who benefitted the most from their own higher education to contribute their fair share to provide opportunities for the next generation--and an incentive to reduce their taxes via private giving to higher ed.

In addition, SUNY has been sharing some of this data with state-wide and campus governance leaders.  Assuming they're using the same calculations as Newfield for "core operations," the level of state support for SUNY core operations is comparable to his figures.  General fund support bounced around in the high 60% and low 70% range in the early '90s, declined sharply into the low 60% range in the late '90s, climbed into the mid-60% range for the first 3 years of the 2000s, plunged sharply again for the next 3 years into the mid-50% range, recovered for the next 3 years into the high 50% and low 60% range, and then dropped sharply again this academic year to near 50%.   But all signs suggest that 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 will see us fall into the low-to-mid 40% range. So in a sense UC's fortunes could be understood as the "canary in the mineshaft" for SUNY. While both systems suffered large cuts in 1995 and 2003, SUNY managed to keep significantly more state support for core operations. But we're approaching where UC was back in 2005-2006.

It's worth noting, however, that university colleges like my own institution have been bearing a disproportionate share of the costs of declining state support within the SUNY system. The average share of state support for the comprehensives tends to lag about 15 percentage points behind the doctorates in SUNY. Whereas the doctorates have fallen from the high 50% range to the low 50% range in the last 3 academic years, the comprehensives have declined from the mid-40% range to the mid-30% range. And in fact at SUNY Fredonia, the state's share will fall below 20% for next academic year if the Governor's cuts go through. This is because we gain revenue not only from student tuition and fees (along with a relatively low level of financial aid compared to our peer institutions in SUNY), but also from residence halls, food services, and the campus bookstore. It's often quoted that our Faculty Student Association's activities generate more revenue for the campus than does state support. I wouldn't be surprised if the average regular at our campus Starbucks (a franchise run by our FSA) spends more in a year than she is taxed by the state to support SUNY Fredonia.

And that trend is likely to accelerate here and across the state in the next several years, whether or not the PHEE&IA passes. If it does go down in flames, students are likely to see a much higher tuition increase than they otherwise would have gotten. If they think they have a better chance of influencing New York's dysfunctional political system than their local campus leadership, more power to them. They'll need it.

We'll all need it, in fact. We'll need a range of tactics and a concerted effort to craft an overall strategy to bring the figures Newfield suggests we track back to equitable and sustainable levels.

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