UC should consider going private

Public, state-supported colleges have always represented the blue collar everyman, promising higher education for those qualified to attend. Unfortunately, as state budgets have nose-dived into the red, governments have been less and less able to support public universities, causing a seemingly endless string of budget cuts and fee increases. Ironically, this has caused private schools — with their generous endowments — to become more viable options for low-income students. For example, while the University of California reduces financial aid, Harvard University meets 100 percent of student need with grants.

The University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and the College of William and Mary recently responded to this new financial reality by proposing the Chartered University Initiative (http://www.virginia.edu/chartereduniversities/index.html), a piece of legislation that would allow the universities to become autonomous political units under the state of Virginia in return for reduced state funding — in other words, de facto private schools. The University of Virginia’s Web site cites “unpredictable tuition levels,” top faculty being recruited away and insufficient money for financial aid as reasons for making the change. Sound familiar?

The idea is not as preposterous as one might think. UCSD receives only 18.6 percent of its funding from the state of California, a number that will inevitably fall as the university’s funding needs grow faster than state support, which has fallen the past three years. More tellingly, a November 2004 study by UC Berkeley professor emeritus Charles Schwartz indicates that UC undergraduates already pay 95 percent of the cost of their education. The university claims the true figure is 30 percent, while Schwartz argues that his study more accurately represents the true cost of education by omitting expenses related to faculty and graduate research. The University of California also receives an enormous portion of its funding for research from the federal government and private grants, with relatively little from the state.

“If you were to ask me what signal I can imagine most clearly designates the transition from public to private status, I would say [it’s] when undergraduate student fees cross the line of paying for more than 100 percent of the actual cost of their education at the institution,” Schwartz stated in his report.

The University of Virginia wasn’t the only public university to drink the Kool-Aid in recent months. UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law announced earlier this month that it, too, would like to join the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan in the ranks of more-private-than-public law schools. Boalt Dean Christopher Edley, Jr. believes increased autonomy from the state is the only way the school can take decisive action to remedy its uncompetitive faculty compensation packages and insufficient financial aid for top students. Is there an echo in this story, or what?

Of course, given these universities’ budget problems, it seems counterintuitive to turn down state funding; after all, wouldn’t that result in even less funding? In the University of Virginia’s case, campus administrators believe that autonomy would allow their university to function more efficiently even with reduced state funding. And by offering to take a 10-percent cut in state funding in return for that autonomy, the university is putting its money where its mouth is.

It’s impossible to know whether the University of California as a whole could benefit from the same efficiency gains that the University of Virginia and UC Berkeley’s law school believe they can. But given how seriously many of the university’s peers are taking these proposals, it would be foolish of us not to look long and hard at the possibility instead of merely seeking to tread water through short-term compacts with the state.