Posted by: jonkatz | September 26, 2009

On public universities, and the UC system

Luca posts about the recent cuts in the UC system. (In a later post, he also provided a link to an unbelievable interview with the president of the University of California. It’s unbelievable to me that someone who rose to be the president could come across so badly in an interview.)

Luca wonders how UC Berkeley will continue to provide public, affordable education of quality comparable to any top private research university in the country. I wonder whether these two goals aren’t mutually incompatible. Doesn’t the state of California have many important places where its money should be directed? More generally, why should we expect that students getting a public education should get “the best” education? (Isn’t that analogous to requiring government to provide not just shelter for the homeless, but also to provide mansions?) And if the goals stated earlier are not mutually incompatible, then why have no states other than California seemed able to realize them?

An addendum: I figured as much, but now my feeling are corroborated: apparently, many of the quotes in interviews conducted by Deborah Solomon are taken out of context. I wonder what the reaction of President Yudof will be.



  1. – I do wonder why the UC system has been so much more successful than the other publics.

    – The state of california had a 24 billion budget shortfall last time I checked. This kind of thing can’t go on forever; clearly, cuts have to be made.

    Cutting professor’s salaries does not seem obviously worse than cutting other things like public transportation or primary education.

  2. Frankly, I find your comparison to providing shelter to the homeless quite appalling. Maybe, the government should also build roads just good enough to drive at 25mph, and leave better quality roads for private parties to build as toll roads.

    Putting aside the moral issues of a civilized society providing good education irrespective of parents’ income, I think it’s in a nation’s selfish interest to make high quality education affordable and available to the population. Quality education leads to social mobility, which has been the primary driver of success in this country. California’s success in IT is at least partly due to the excellent UCs. Private universities are not really affordable for most of the public, financial aid options notwithstanding. I personally know people coming from middle class families who did not go to a particular school for financial reasons.

    And if the goals stated earlier are not mutually incompatible, then why have no states other than California seemed able to realize them?
    I do not believe this is true. Georgia Tech, UWash, UWisc, UIUC, UNC are some other leading examples. And if you expand your horizon to the rest of the world, you would find several more examples.

  3. anon2, I think you misread me, or at least you are distorting my words.

    I never said I do not support a ‘good’ public education. My question was whether the public must support ‘the best‘ education. If Harvard spends more money to become a ‘better’ school, must UC Berkeley always spend enough money to keep up?

    GATech might be the only school in your list comparable to UC Berkeley (I’m not looking just at CS depts. here), and Berkeley encompasses the sciences and humanities to a much greater extent than GATech does.

    In fact, the schools on your list exactly prove my point. They provide a good (heck, great) education without trying to provide a ‘top 5’ education.

  4. Isn’t getting education from places tagged as “top 5 schools” a bit overrated? I mean, is one guaranteed to do better in one’s life/job/career just because one got one’s education in one of these univs? I guess I am trying to understand if the “output” gained by people who were educated in one of these univs is commensurate to the overall hype generated?

    I am interested solely from the point of a view of an individual, who for example decides to send his kids to these top univs compared to someone else who sends his kids to somewhat lower ranked univs (i.e., not the `top 5′ in Jonathan’s last comment). So you gotta ignore all the research breakthroughs that professors in these univs make.

  5. What is the difference between `top 5′ education and `great’ education?

  6. I was referring specifically to the US News and World Report rankings. (Note: I specifically put quotes around ‘good’, ‘better’, and ‘top 5’ because it is not clear such things can be quantified when it comes to education. Nevertheless, students and the universities themselves spend a lot of time obsessing over these rankings.)

    Isn’t getting education from places tagged as “top 5 schools” a bit overrated?

    There are several studies of this question, and I believe they all indicate that, yes, they are overrated for the average student. Based on my own experience, I would say that for the vast majority of people the choice of undergraduate institution is not extremely important vis-a-vis later success in life. Graduate school (and law/business school for that matter) is much more important.

  7. I think that you are missing the main point. Until now (and this is for many years), the State of California HAS succeeded in giving a public education which is of the level of the BEST universities. So, it seems that it’s not impossible (and if you want to talk about the financial crisis, then remember that this is not the first nor the last such crisis).

    In Israel the best universities are public. However, the universities are in real financial trouble due to continuing budget cuts which reflect a change in priorities. Without knowing exactly what’s going on in California, I would guess that something similar is probably happening.

  8. Yehuda, the fact that things used to be one way, and are now changing, is what makes us as academics upset. But that does not answer the question of whether it is sustainable.

    (By the way, maybe the answer is that it is sustainable. But I don’t have the economic data to answer this either way. What I’m questioning is the implicit assumption that, to be effective, the UC system (or Berkeley in particular) must be competitive with the best private universities.)

  9. Jon – what do you mean by sustainable? Of course it’s not sustainable on its own, but it has historically been “sustained” by subsidies from the state.

    Obviously, if the state decides to cut the subsidy, Berkeley will need to choose between reducing quality or increasing tuition. If that is indeed the only choice, I think there is a good argument for the latter

    The current tuition for a year at Berkeley is $9,748
    The tuition for Stanford it is $37,380

    It seems that Berkeley could afford to have a significant tuition increase while remaining competitive

  10. According to here, tuition is even lower than that.

    I see no problem with raising tuition to maintain quality. Unfortunately, many of the most vocal supporters of public education seem to be against this. (At least this is the case in Maryland, where we are going through a budget crisis at a smaller scale — and at a less prestigious university. We are having layoffs, hiring feeezes, and furloughs, but increasing tuition is apparently not an option to close the budget gap.)

  11. I actually think having low tuition at public schools is very critical. After all, public schools are meant to make higher education accessible to general public, and money happens to be one of the most important factors in doing so.

    But I agree with Jon that when a State like California is doing so poorly, there are only two ways to go (1) Lowering quality of education (2) Increasing tuition

    The first one usually happens through layoffs, cutting salaries, and hiring freezes. The second one is obvious. I think a little bit of both is better than a lot of one and none of the other. I also think any increase in the tuition should be a temporary one (ignoring the natural increase due inflation etc). You can only hope that the lower quality of education is temporary too.

  12. I am not aware of studies estimating the contribution of the UC system to the California economy and comparing it to the state subsidy, although such studies probably exist. A piece of data that I have seen (sorry that I can’t find the link) is that UC Berkeley brings in research grants worth six times the state subsidy. Since the University administration takes about 1/3 of the grants (our overhead rate is 52%), this means that the administration is subsidized by external grants at twice the rate it is from the state, or that the state investment in education is matched 2-to-1 by funds coming from outside the university (and, for the most part, form outside the state of California). If UC Berkeley were not a top school in Engineering and Biology, there would probably not be a similar multiplier effect on the state investment. (Although I realize that the amount of research funding correlates poorly with research quality.)

    On whether the investment is worth at all, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the biotech and IT industry in the Bay Area is close to UCSF and UC Berkeley. Obviously, Stanford has a huge claim on the existence of the Bay Area IT industry, but the availability of the very large number of high-quality Berkeley graduates means that as the companies grow the jobs can stay in California. (And, indeed, out-of-state companies are willing to open satellite operations in the Bay Area in order to tap into this talent pool.)

    All this is to say that supporting a top public university is an investment, which has a return, it’s not an extravagant way of spending money.

    Unfortunately the depth of the California fiscal crisis is such that there isn’t even money for vital spending (on health care, etc.), and so even a good investment might become a luxury that cannot be afforded.

  13. Luca, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    In these economic times, yours are the kind of arguments that need to be made if strong, widespread support of top-quality public education is to continue, rather than broad platitudes for “the right to a free education”.

  14. My question was whether the public must support ‘the best‘ education.
    Sorry to have misinterpreted your position.

    A natural next question that comes to mind then is the following: what does “best education” mean? I can understand what distinguishes a mansion from a shelter, or a luxury watch from a non-luxury one. But I am not sure what makes (say) Harvard education the best? I can see small class sizes as one factor. What are the others?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: