The most visible item on this week’s University of California Regents agenda has the Board considering a cap on the enrollment of non resident students. It appears towards the end of the second month of a Trump administration that has not dampened enthusiasm for debt-free college or free college but increased it.
Democrats in California, New York, and elsewhere are proposing debt-free plans and are weighing tuition-free as well ("Degrees Not Debt," "The $48 Fix"). In January, the California Legislative Analyst's Office published a report calculating the costs of debt-free college degrees in the state's public systems. When I extended their arithmetic for UC, it showed that UC could be debt-free for less than 10% of its current tuition income.
That would be an amazing thing. It would change what the public thinks universities can do for them. But the UC Regents are talking about a different tuition issue this week.
In California, nonresident (NR) enrollment was a ticking political time bomb that finally went off a year ago, when the State Auditor released a report finding, to quote its title, “The University of California: Its Admissions and Financial Decisions Have Disadvantaged California Resident Students.” The UCOP rebuttal didn’t appease the legislature, which translated the angry denunciations of some members into a proposal that nonresident undergraduates be capped at 10% of overall UC undergraduate enrollment.
The advantage for UC is that it can continue to grow overall nonresident supplemental tuition (NRST) revenues (which bring $26,682 in tuition on top of the $13,500 state-resident tuition and campus fees that NR students also pay). The disadvantage for UC is that this flies in the face of legislative desire, which is that NR enrollments stop growing and start getting cut back. Sometime this week, the Regents' proposal was downgraded to a discussion item, so that even this modest proposal will not be up for a vote.
I’m going to focus on aspects of one issue: does NRST actually work as public income replacement?
NRST is a prime example of privatization, since it partially replaces public funding—state general funds—with high tuition from individual students and their families. Privatization advocates have two main arguments. First, they say they didn’t “replace” public with private funding, since the public funding was already cut and they needed to fill a gap. Second, in the case of NRST, the tuition money comes with low costs, and the benefits are always far greater than these costs.
This year, both UCOP and Senate leaders are also stressing the blessings of diversity as uniquely offered by NR students. UC may have started privatizing reactively, but now seems to say that private funding is as good or better than public funding, at least in the case of NRST, which is per student $26,682 better than public funding. But is NRST in fact an example of privatization bringing both fun and profit?
When I first wrote about it in September 2009, I calculated that its financial benefits were overstated: senior officials announced gross income figures that didn’t deduct expenses or real non-monetary costs like the political goodwill required to maintain state funding. I called NRST one of the “nickel solutions” that can get to a 5% (or some other single-digit share) increase in a vulnerable revenue stream but not beyond that. I was using Robert Birgeneau’s plan to do what in fact has happened—ramp up the nonresident share of UC Berkeley’s undergraduate enrollment to about 25% of the total. Then-chancellor Birgeneau projected an increase of tuition revenues to $70 million at 25% NR enrollment.
In response, I estimated the benefit to the UC Berkeley budget had it already achieved a 25% share of NR students: 8% of full instructional expenditures as I calculated them, and 4% of overall campus expenditures. Hence the nickel.
UCSD professor of marine chemistry Andrew Dickson—and fellow UCPB vet—used a different methodology to come up with a similar estimate. Both of us emphasized hidden or indirect costs of adding NR students. These included new instructional and student support needs. They included the price of political resentment and backlash from the public and the legislature, which would appear in the concrete budget effect of either cuts or reduced public funding increases over the long term as the University proved once again that it didn’t need so much public money because it had so much private money, including tuition from that semi-infinite supply of international students who were joining a billion-strong global middle class allegedly hungering for an American BA.
This blog's NRST analyses suggested three worrisome features of UC advocacy.
- UC calculates the financial benefits as a gross income, not as a net. Indirect and nonmonetary costs (like political goodwill or student work hours) aren’t analyzed publicly.
- It denies or deems temporary the anti-public aspects of the move. UC officials were then suggesting that NR enrollment would last only as long as the budget cuts and could be dialed back as soon as possible.
- When someone does put political costs on the agenda, senior officials define them as effectively zero. The same goes for the costs to public funding. I have again recently had a face-to-face experience with a senior UC official who declared the feedback loop from private back to public to be nonexistent. In this view, UC’s continuous and successful efforts to increase private revenues never have and do not now teach politicians that they can cut state funds without hurting the University.
What’s happened since? The state cut public funding and still hasn’t built it back. The University raised tuition and then the governor forced a freeze. The University ramped up nonresident enrollment, such that UC now has about 5 times the number of NR students that it had ten years ago. As in any social system, these elements of the funding model are interconnected.
Then, about ten years after the growth began, the State Auditor issued its report, and the political blowback began. UCOP responded in three ways. It posted a rebuttal that insisted the University has continued to admit all eligible resident students, rejecting the state’s claim that NR enrollments damaged access. It emphasized the pre-existing plan (page 8) to admit an additional 10,000 resident students, in spite of below-cost per-student funding from the state. And now, the regents will have a discussion of an NR cap that allows further NR growth at the non-flagship campuses up to an overall system total of 20 percent.
NRST was 12% of the campus's core revenues, or over half the total tuition the campus gets from resident tuition. Given limits on the growth of state funding and resident tuition, NRST is no longer a temporary alternative revenue stream but a significant part of the overall budget. At least from the administrative perspective, Premise 2 above--NRST's temporary nature--is moot.
But remember that these are gross revenues. Let's look at NRST net income, and switch back to Berkeley to compare the 2009 calculations to the actual situation at nearly 25% nonresident enrollment.
Like all campuses, UC Berkeley grosses $40,182 per NR undergrad. We subtract gross in-state tuition of $13,500, since the campus would get this anyway with a resident student. (The University normally takes one-third of gross in-state tuition as “return to aid” to support financial aid programs, but NR students also pay this on the in-state tuition "base.") UC Berkeley thus receives $26,682 for replacing a resident student with a nonresident student, or for adding a nonresident student rather than adding a resident student.
Next, we subtract a round number of $10,000 for the marginal cost of instruction and related expenses for adding an additional student. These include new additional costs incurred by adding an NR rather than a residential student (a larger international office for visas and other paperwork; language support; academic tutoring; acculturation and integration programs--anyone who things social integration is cheap has never done it!) This reduces the net yield per nonresident student to $16,682. (In the table in regents’ item B4, page 7, the net is instead $15,862.)
Then, we encounter another subtraction. Undergrads who are residents of California also bring state general funding with them. This is the amount that has been cut so much over the decades--it is down from $19,100 in 1990-91 to $7,160 (in 2016-17 dollars, Display 3). But $7160 is far from zero. In the case when a nonresident student replaces a resident student, we subtract $7160. The net after deducting direct costs or losses for this kind of NR student, who replaces a resident, is $9522.
Hmm. If we posit that UC Berkeley decided not to add unfunded resident students and not to overcrowd its facilities, so that all nonresident students replaced a resident they might have taken were the state paying for them, we multiply this figure back by UC Berkeley's 7335 nonresident enrollments. In that case, we get a net NRST for the campus of $69,844,000. This is freakishly close to Robert Birgeneau's 2009 estimate of $70,000,000. More importantly, it is under 10% of the campus's gross tuition revenues. It is just under 4% of the campus's 2015 operating revenues. In short, NRST remains the nickel solution that it seemed to be in 2009.
A rebuttal to this analysis would object that its premise is wrong: UC Berkeley added resident students as well so NR students didn't simply replace them; the state wasn't paying for many of the resident students so there wasn't that $7160 difference to subtract; or it was paying $5000 instead. I agree that we would get different numbers if we changed the proportion of NR added to NR replacing residents and plugged in the state's shortchanging. There is a range of reasonable estimates of the NRST net. But they wouldn't increase the NRST totals enough, net of direct monetary cost, to justify making NRST a central and irreplaceable tuition strategy. That's my first conclusion. There's a price to the privatization of revenue streams, and it needs to be netted out.
Direct financial costs don't exhaust this price. We still haven't touched on the indirect and non-monetary or intangible costs of the NRST strategy. Some of the indirect costs are monetary. There are costs of competition for nonresident students in the form of new capital projects, better overall student services, better housing, and the like. (I'd refer doubters of these indirect costs to Berkeley's former VC for Administration and Finance John Wilton's analysis behind his comment, "Berkeley must now compete for its three most important revenue sources against the best private and public universities.")
Other indirect costs are costs to academic quality. This is a taboo subject in a University that is now engaged in a permanent campaign to fundraise from everybody, but the problem continues eight years after the crisis. This year, to compensate an angry legislature for NRST, UC enrolled the largest one-year number of new residential students in living memory. Campuses are handling the “surge”--on top of the continued growth of non-residents--with strategies like hiring non tenure track rather than tenure track faculty, growing course sizes, and endorsing short-cuts such as having some undergraduate work be graded by other undergrads. How do we quantify this cost of tuition-suppressed public funding--which may follow our graduates into their working lives--so that state government cares about it?
There are still other costs I will merely name. One is the public cost to national higher education as states race each other to swap students so they ca triple charge them. The Department of Education should confront this absurd escalation of overall national tuition charges, which drives some share of student debt, though even under Obama it did not.
Another other is the loss of political goodwill. This is hard to put a number on, but "The $48 Fix" calculated that UC is at least $3 billion in general funding below where it would be had it simply grown with the state from 2000 on (Table 1). Clearly not all of this gap can be traced to tuition hikes. But the annual state funding shortfall is 5 or 6 times larger than even the gross NRST revenue figure for the system-- to say nothing of the net.
We should do a few things going forward. Faculty should support the Senate's call that UCOP not just give the state an NRST cap (page 8), but call on it to buy out the NSRT--and set a wider precedent for restored public support.
We need to recognize that the three premises I mentioned above don't hold. We must see nonresident enrollment through a calculation of its net revenues that includes its indirect, political, and social costs. This means we must face the fact that when we include the cost to public support of the educational core, privatization is a money loser. This leads to the only viable alternative, a public-good model for the university that supports debt-free college,and a $48 Fix.
The same goes for research as well as teaching. Research funding and graduate education have also been destabilized by the private-revenue model. I'd ask faculty skeptics who think "multiple revenue streams" is the only way to keep Berkeley and other UC research on top: Are you better off today than you were 8 years ago, when we started to ramp NRST up?