One Overpriced Diploma, To Go, Please!

Governor recommends UC offer more ‘limited menu’ of courses

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What I like about Chipotle is the limited menu. You stand in the line, get either brown rice or white rice, black beans or pinto beans, you put a little cheese, a little this, a little that, and you’re out of there. I think that’s a model some of our universities need to follow.  Jerry Brown, Governor of California

There you are, ascending to the stage clad in cap and gown, your name about to be called. After years of hard work, you approach your college provost, look them in the eyes and see them smile as they hand you a well-earned, lukewarm burrito.

This, apparently, is Gov. Jerry Brown’s vision for the state’s collegiate education system.

Brown was recently quoted in the Sacramento Bee saying California’s universities should strive to emulate Chipotle’s “limited menu,” ostensibly in the interest of ensuring students graduate within the expected four years.

His argument is that the exorbitant cost of education is in part due to the number of years students are spending at these universities. Consequently, the curriculum should be narrowed to reduce time spent at college, and thus expenses.

That argument is both absurd and dangerous because it normalizes students bearing the disproportionate cost burden of their education. It willfully ignores dwindling state funding of higher education and rampant administrative bloat. Attending a public university should never be prohibitively expensive — that defeats the entire purpose of public college education.

The editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune noted in 2017 that the UC system had three times as many administrators for its 238,000 students as the CSU system did for almost twice as many students. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2015 that the number of administrators at the UC more than doubled between 2000 and 2015, from about 4,500 to about 10,500.

At the same time, the proportion of state funding allocated to higher education has been steadily decreasing over the past four decades, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. In the 1976-77 fiscal year, higher education accounted for 18 percent of the state budget. Today, it accounts for 12 percent, a one-third decrease. Adjusted for inflation, funding for the UC per full-time-equivalent student fell from $23,000 to $13,650.

Governor Brown is correct with respect to the rapidly rising cost of a college education. To pose trimming the breadth, depth and quality of a UC education as a solution despite astounding administrative excess and historically lacking state support, however, is as near as one can come to spitting in the faces of the UC student body.

Yet that appears to be precisely the direction the UC system is headed.

UC Santa Cruz started down this path with the Strategic Academic Plan (SAP). The plan is centered on increasing national recognition and achievement in research, finding new ways of “generating resources” and focusing funds on existing campus strengths. The plan was crafted after purportedly thorough surveying of the student body, but students and faculty criticized both the rapid timetable and failure to adequately gather and address feedback.

For the SAP, UCSC partnered with the private consulting firm Entangled Solutions. In an interview with The Washington Post, one of this firm’s principal consultants, Michael Horn, likened college education to a product to be packaged and sold like cable television. The UC, and higher education in general, is not a mere commodity. Classes are not components to be portioned out like $1.95 guacamole in a burrito or channels in a cable package.

The solution to the rising cost of a college degree is to rein in wasteful administrative spending and increase state funding. The changes suggested by Gov. Brown accept the inflated cost of college by instead diminishing the possibilities of what students are able to get out of their education. Supposedly it’s in the name of saving students money, yet they would continue to overpay for the time they do spend in college — all while getting a worse value for their dollar.

Brown’s so-called solution perpetuates the economic exploitation of students, just on an expedited timetable.

His ideals for the UC are an affront to all students and serve to transform the gold standard of public secondary education into an overpriced credential mill. While the UC recently secured a $98 million annual budget increase and a one-time fund of $249 million, this is not sufficient to address the significant financial burden placed on students.

The state should make a concerted effort to raise the funding of the UC to the level it was in the 1970s, through progressive tax increases on high-income households and large businesses. In addition, the UC should be ordered to reduce the excessive and unnecessary number of administrative positions. Call the governor’s office, your state representative and state senator. Send emails, write letters to the editors of newspapers to get their attention. Make these demands loud and clear.

Gutting the content of a college education in the name of Chipotle-esque efficiency is liable to leave California’s students retching from intellectual e-coli.

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