The Myth of College Funding

The Myth of College Funding

Jeffrey Williams: The Myth of College Funding

The way that universities are funded is poorly understood, and often at the expense of teaching.

In November 2009 on PBS News Hour, Mark Yudof, president of the University of California system, justified exorbitant fee hikes for students:

Many of our, if I can put it this way, businesses are in good shape. We?re doing very well there. Our hospitals are full, our medical business, our medical research, the patient care. So, we have this core problem: Who is going to pay the salary of the English department? We have to have it?.And that?s where we?re running into trouble.

Yudof was expressing the common sense of higher education funding: that ?business? parts of universities and research bring in money, but actual teaching is a money drain, and the humanities the biggest drain of all. This is a myth. In actuality, most research does not make a surplus for universities but sucks in other funds, and much teaching, notably in student-rich fields like English, brings in a surplus of tuition dollars, dollars that then subsidize research that usually benefits private corporations. So private corporations are, in effect, subsidized not only by state funds, but by the educational arm of the contemporary university.

Several people have worked to dispel the myth of college funding?that research funds teaching rather than the other way around?particularly in Yudof?s state of California. One is Christopher Newfield, who has written extensively on higher education in the United States and maintains a blog, Remaking the University. Another is Bob Samuels, a lecturer at UCLA and union representative for the American Federation of Teachers, who has dispelled some of this bad math in an article in the Huffington Post, ?How America?s Universities Became Hedge Funds.? A particularly good article that sets the account straight is Robert N. Watson?s (also at UCLA) ?The Humanities Really Do Produce a Profit,? in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

With squeezed public funding, there will be more pressure to raise tuitions and fees beyond their historically high level (in the past twenty years, they have gone up by a factor of five, whereas inflation has only doubled). We thus need to have a clearer idea of how funding works. To that end, we need to see the books, the actual accounting of universities, which, even in public universities, is often obscured. We also need to keep a clear idea of what public education is for?the education of our children and neighbors? children, first off. Most people, according to one California survey, support taxes to keep higher education accessible, but they don?t if it goes to some abstract research project or a big new administrative building.