OPINION: California education proposals ignore root causes of high tuition costs

OPINION: California education proposals ignore root causes of high tuition costs

 

 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom took the reigns Monday to head America’s most populous state — to start his tenure, he has some radical changes he hopes to integrate into California’s education system. While many of them lack specificity, may be overly ambitious and are expensive, they are all well-intentioned. Newsom’s “cradle to career” idea, otherwise dubbed the “California Promise,” is one such plan.

Designed under the pretense that most families cannot comfortably afford college tuition, Newsom’s plan is to expand prenatal care, introduce universal preschool for 4-year-olds, start college savings accounts for every California kindergartener and guarantee two years of free community college tuition.

Despite each component of the plan costing tremendous amounts of money ($2 billion for universal preschool, $92 million per year for community college tuition, according to EdSource), these costs could very well be investments that will ultimately save money for the average California taxpayer. Irrespective of the plan’s quality or its costs, however, Newsom’s plan does not address the root of the problem: College tuition, particularly in the  public University of California system, is inordinately high. While private universities come with even higher costs, Newsom’s actions affect public schools and taxpayers more directly.

But Newsom’s reasoning ignores some easy fixes that would cut costs. A reason higher education costs so much may be that professors are unwilling to teach more classes.

“I talk to administrators in the UC system who tell me that professors get paid nice salaries, but they don’t want to teach undergrad,” Newsom’s gubernatorial opponent John Cox said in an interview with EdSource. “Well I’m sorry, but that’s one of the reasons why education costs what it costs these days.”

Most studies are conducted by college professors and teams of academics, but surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), one area that lacks sufficient data is just how long professors work and how much professors’ work directly impacts students. The short answer is not enough.

According to The Washington Post, the few reports gathered on teaching load suggest that professors on average teach between 12 and 15 hours per week — in other words, three hours of class instruction a day. This is ridiculously low, even without the fact that many professors have no instructional hours over the summer.

Professor salaries mirror those of most upper middle class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks of the year. This figure does not consider professors’ month-long winter break or weeks off in the springs and summers free of instructional hours.

According to the University of California, 30 percent of their budget goes toward academic salaries. An additional 14 percent goes toward professor retirement benefits. Only a fraction of these salaries and benefits — stemming from student tuition — comes back to directly impact students.

“The Best Schools” Magazine database, which analyzes and ranks the highest-paid professors in the country, features one from UC Berkeley. One of two public school professors in the top 10 makes a whopping $709,000 a year. His salary is funded in part by students who take out loans they will spend the rest of their lives paying off.

Many professors dedicate their lives to important research that, in a many cases, can save lives. Research is funded not just by student tuition, but to a larger extent by grants. However, it is difficult to persuade a family over $100,000 in student debt that their student’s education is being managed appropriately with the ratio of research hours to instructional hours.

There is not much the government can do regarding the cost of private colleges and universities. After all, enrolling in one is a choice that is dependent on accepting the price tag of the university, there are no government subsidies for these institutions.

But everyone who files taxes in California partially funds the state’s public universities. If all California residents are pitching in to ensure families of all socioeconomic backgrounds have strong academic institutions for their children to attend, those institutions should not be wasting our money. It’s a lose-lose for everyone —  for California residents who supposedly subsidise the costs of college tuition and for the families who depend on the state for affordable higher education.

So while Newsom’s plan to alleviate the cost of college is well-intentioned, it glosses over the cost itself. Instead of assuming the cost is justified, perhaps Newsom should look into why the cost of college is so high in the schools under his control. While this may not be the magical solution, he should at least start by looking at how many professors work “full time” and just how justified their compensation is in relation to the time they put in.

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