Politics & Policy

Tuition Showdown

How much does it really cost to educate a Californian?

As head of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano followed the U.S. government’s official practice of refusing to negotiate with hostage-takers. As head of the University of California system, she has become the hostage-taker.

Napolitano is demanding that the cash-strapped state of California pony up an additional $100 million for the UC system, and she threatens to inflict a 5 percent tuition hike on students for each of the next five years in retaliation if Sacramento does not comply. This puts her on the wrong side of Governor Jerry Brown, who by being eternally fixed in anno Domini 1978 has become, strangely enough, the face of relative fiscal sanity as the rest of California rushes headlong into madness.  It is easy to make too much of Governor Brown’s relative fiscal conservatism — much of the state’s purported budget miracle is the result of simply putting off necessary pension payments — but the Honorable Governor Moonbeam is here in the right: California is not out of the fiscal woods by any stretch of the imagination, and it cannot afford what Napolitano is demanding.

On the subject of what higher-education expenses California can afford: Napolitano is paid just shy of $600,000 a year in salary, along with $8,916 annually in car expenses, and a $142,500 relocation grant. Even in that tax bracket, she apparently cannot afford to live in the Bay Area, so the university system rents her a home at ten grand a month. And the usual shenanigans — a six-figure outlay to study whether unhappy people spend more time on Twitter or Facebook; similar expenses for Robosquirrel, “a taxidermied actual squirrel that is stored with live squirrels so it smells real” — turn up with diurnal predictability.

How much could it actually cost to provide California students with a first-rate college education? The answer — as predictable as the dawn of Robosquirrel — is this: Nobody knows. If there is one thing that government institutions excel at, it is ensuring that they do not know that which they do not wish to know. (E.g., How prevalent is sex-selective abortion in the United States?) The bundle of things that the University of California system does is large and complex, and a great many of them — most of them, by some calculations — do not have anything directly to do with undergraduate education.

Katherine Hafner of UCLA’s Daily Bruin highlights the work of retired Berkeley professor Charles Schwartz, whose background in physics (I’m told that “Linear Equations for Noncommutative Algebras” starts off a little slow but really picks up about halfway through) provides an excellent background for the analysis of university budgeting, a realm of uncertainty and spooky action if ever there were one. I am not entirely sold on every jot and tittle of his methodology, but he makes a more persuasive case for his numbers than the university does. His findings? Under one set of assumptions, undergraduate students already are paying in tuition and fees 127 percent of the cost of educating them; under a different set, they are paying 191 percent of the cost of educating them. The university, on the other hand, estimates that tuition costs less than half the cost of undergraduate education.

In large part, this comes down to what counts as undergraduate instruction. Professor Schwartz points out: “The accounting habits of research universities obscure the fact that professors are hired to perform research as well as teaching and simply record the totality of their academic-year salaries as expenditures for ‘Instruction.’ The phrase ‘Departmental Research’ is used to cover that deceptive practice.” In the past two years, UCLA has paid more than $500,000 in speaking fees to two people — Bill and Hillary Clinton — and who knows by what avenues of fungibilty students and their families might have been soaked for that.

“Knowledge is its own end,” Cardinal Newman wrote in The Idea of a University. But we have a different idea of the university today: a supplementary welfare state that exists to pay exorbitant salaries to washed-up officeholders and political hacks between campaigns. This is not about teaching: Faculty salaries, and faculty headcounts, have been mostly flat for more than a decade, but the swelling ranks of administrators drove university employment up 28 percent during the same years.

A gravy train like that is something to fight over. Ask University of Texas regent Wallace Hall, impeached and threatened with prosecution for uncovering a nepotism scandal and questionable financial doings. Ask Texas governor Rick Perry, endlessly mocked for his position that the way to make higher education more affordable is to make higher education more affordable. Ask would-be reformers at the University of Illinois, where political connections trumped qualifications for admissions.

Those of us who advocate private, market-based approaches to education are used to hearing the complaint: That’s great for the rich, but what about the poor? What about the middle class? The fact is that free markets do an excellent job providing first-rate products for the poor, which is why a kid in a housing project in 2014 has a better cellphone than a Wall Street kingpin did in 1991. But even if we take that criticism at face value: Whom, exactly, do you think the current system is serving? Janet Napolitano is paid about 40 times the average income in Imperial County, Calif., one of many struggling areas of the Golden State. And though I sympathize with the students and their families, does anybody really believe that undergraduate tuition for a dance-and-performative-studies major at Berkeley represents the struggle of the downtrodden?

Governor Brown is a much smarter politician than is Janet Napolitano, and one suspects that he is going to win this round. But the project of reforming our nation’s higher-education systems — including excellent systems such as California’s — is a task too large for him. It’s not a job for a scalpel — it’s a job for a meat-ax.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

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