Higher education as if students mattered?

Submitted: Dec 11, 2005

The study just released by the University of California, “Return on Investment: Educational choices and demographic change in California’s future,” (1) is a particularly specious bit of UC/corporate flak, reminiscent of the campaign for UC Merced. The study argues that if you have more college-educated people in your society, you will have less crime and more high-paying jobs. Many economists would suggest that job demand has something to do with the equation – but they didn’t get this grant. A supply of college-educated people of working age less than the job demand for them could be a recipe for extreme job competition, lower wages, higher rates of turnover, social discontent and emigration of a significant portion of a workforce whose education was subsidized by taxpayers. Since what is meant by education in this study is technological training, it’s fair to ask how Californians with technological training compete today with Indians and Asians with comparable training. Ask Silicon Valley, which has been off-shoring California jobs to India and Asia for several decades, as well as importing foreign high tech workers to the Peninsula. San Jose is today a true city of the world, a place larger than California, attracting the best and brightest technological workers of the world.

Training, inventiveness, intelligence and education aren’t the problems facing California. Funded by a group calling itself the Campaign for College Opportunity, which appears to be a front group for the California Business Roundtable, once again, UC is taking an opportunity to recycle unreliable demographic data to make a case for more public spending on UC, with a bit left over for the lesser public institutions of higher learning.

People are tired of this nonsense. It is highly conspicuous waste, meant to doll up a class of “leaders” for their next honoraria. The study was commissioned by the business roundtable, a cabal of banks, insurance companies, developers, land companies, energy companies, construction and engineering firms and miscellaneously wealthy companies like Gap and J.G. Boswell, involved in the world, cotton trade, and the J. Paul Getty Trust, headed by Barry Munitz, former Charles Hurwitz associate and (“chainsaw”) chancellor of the CSU system. The intervening group, Campaign for College Opportunity, is headed by the roundtable’s president, includes a San Francisco Chamber of Commerce vice president, several university officials, a UC regent, union officials and minority group representatives. But the state taxpayers paid for the salaries of the UC researchers to pimp the next college/university building boom, based on demographic assumptions already dubious when they were used to sell UC Merced (2). But, at least then, we knew they were just the usual state Department of Finance figures to support the coming speculative housing bubble. That is now rapidly fading. Evidently, the study indulges in them only because it can. Apparently, it is a UC affectation to demand more public funds, pay exorbitant executive salaries (3), sell its services to whatever the corporate buyer demands, and all without any responsibility to the public that pays for the salaries, the maintenance, repair, and for the thousands of other services, plants and equipment that go to making up public institutions of higher learning from the community college outpost in the remote rural town to UC Berkeley.

Perhaps the cogent business reason for promoting another higher education building boom, paid for by the public, is because new colleges and universities, particularly if located in remote areas, attract suburban development like stables attract horse flies.

Perhaps, the state’s enlightened business roundtable, representing 56 corporations, almost half on the Fortune 500 list, believe that it is essential for us to pay for enough new public higher education institutions so that not one – not one! – potential bio-technician or computer engineer escapes his or her destiny to be trained for entrance into the “new economy;” so that not one potential mortgage lender, predatory credit-card enabler, insurance agent or realtor will slip through the system to become a bum, a mechanic or a handiman in this economy, which our business leaders assure us will continue, generation after generation, through levee breaks, global warming, oil peak, waves of immigration and global competition. We should pay through taxes, tuitions and living expenses to educate the next generation so that not one, but five or ten shall be trained identically, to cut each others’ throats in the high-tech job marketplace of the eternally affluent future of technocracy, sure to continue if only we believe our universities, our business leaders and those they employ in elective governmental posts.

Since the propaganda is coming down so hard on us from this source, I think it might be fair for the public to request that California corporations clean up our air and water, stop building more slurbs, build colleges and universities in other states, subsidize our deprived youth to attend them, pay off the current state budget deficit, and provide adequate energy supplies as long as possible at non-profit rates.

At a time when the state treasury rests firmly in the hands of Wall Street, when rich Californians are not even taxed at the normal level prior to 1993, our business leaders urge more public investment in higher education. Following a period of immense profit-taking, unable to wrap themselves in the flag (sullied by total failure in Iraq), they wrap themselves in the Blue and Gold, the priestly garb of a public university reported to have misplaced 600 pounds of plutonium (3), another $6 million of public funds at Los Alamos National Laboratory (4), and the “distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in administrative stipends, bonuses and other hidden cash compensation to employees” to be investigated by the Legislature in January (3).

Education as if the state’s youth mattered might begin by designing a curriculum around what they will need to survive the economy bequeathed them by our business leaders? This would involve the question: what does California society need from business rather than what business needs from society? This might lead to concerns about the problem of quality of life rather than income levels, in world where even stolen resources are rapidly shrinking and life satisfaction might well have to be found in living a life “simple in means, rich in ends,” as philosopher Arne Naess puts it. The problem of how to educate a generation of youth to face – not just the diminished expectations of our generation – but the radically diminished expectations compelled by resource depletion on theirs – would be worthy of a public university. But that might require a university that felt itself under some obligation to tell the truth to the people of the state rather than to flak its corporate funders’ line. It would require a look at where we are, rather than at the “statistical fantasies” offered by this study. (5)

By contrast, “Return on Investment: Educational choices and demographic change in California’s future,” seems redolent with privileged irresponsibility, people saying things because they can merely because they are who they are – the ones who got the grant. Perhaps it is a fashionably conspicuous form of madness cultivated in leading academic circles these days.

Bill Hatch



Said Paul Warren, director of the LAO's education division, "The academic world is saying, 'Panic, panic, panic.' We're saying it's not time to panic.

(3) c/a/2005/11/30/BAGGQFVT7J1.DTL

The notion of studying the costs and benefits of public higher education is plausible. We should know what maintaining the system is costing taxpayers, what economic benefits flow to society and students from those dollars and what the eventual return to taxpayers might be. We should also be told how the public colleges and universities fit into the state's largely private economy - whether they are training the right number of professionals in the right kinds of fields, for instance, or whether their research is enhancing job creation.

Finally, we should know whether higher and lower education systems, maintained by taxpayers at immense cost - well over $60 billion a year - are meshing well or are wasting money on turf battles and incompatible priorities.

UC professors Henry Brady and Michael Hout, however, merely assume that attending college is a societal benefit and amass their synthetic evidence.

"California is sliding from exceptional to ordinary, from 'great' to 'good enough' (and) our study shows that educational investments can help restore California's greatness and preserve its high quality of life while returning more benefits to the state than they will cost the taxpayers," Brady said in a statement.

Brady and Hout don't tell us whether the economy could absorb the increased number of college attendees and graduates they advocate, or even whether there are substantially more youngsters capable of doing college-level work. While decrying the decline in California's high school graduation and college education rates in relation to other states, they don't explore the factors, such as the huge increase in non-English-speaking students or the immense changes in the California economy, that contribute to those trends. They assume, more or less, that there are many millions of Californians who would attend college if only the taxpayers would foot the bill and that expansion would generate big economic returns.

Finally, Brady and Hout fail to explain this phenomenon: There's no apparent shortage of college-trained workers in California (except in a few highly technical fields), but employers are having a heck of a time recruiting cops, carpenters, nurses, electricians, auto mechanics - even truck drivers. Who's going to do the real work if everyone is getting a college degree?

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Unanswered questions on Merced growth

Submitted: Dec 08, 2005

The Merced County League of Women Voters held a workshop at Merced City Hall last week on several general plan updates going on around the county.

The first speaker, Dr. Michael Teitz, is an emeritus professor at UC Berkeley who said he had consulted with UC Merced recently. He was introduced as a scholar who had studied the Valley for years.

In view of what Teitz said about the urbanization of the Valley, it would have been interesting to have heard from him some time sooner than after the “UC Merced done deal” was really done. But, like UC biologists largely muzzled during the planning and development stage, Dr. Teitz was not a household word in Merced when what he had to say might have had some influence.

He had a slide show/power-point presentation called “Future Urbanization of the San Joaquin Valley.” There can be no greater concern than the future urbanization of the Valley, he said, but failed to say why.

He announced that nobody can tell the future, but from the past certain deductions might be made and certain patterns observed and then reported on some possible scenarios generated by computer models at UC.

Only 2 percent of the San Joaquin Valley was urbanized in 2000, according to Teitz’ figures, but, due to the location of the county seats along railroad routes adjacent to prime farmland, most of this urbanization has occurred on prime farmland. Yet, in the last 30 years, the Valley has growth at a rate of 300 percent, its population now exceeds that of 20 states and by 2040, if this rate continues, it will equal the population of the greater Bay Area.

Yet, this will not be urbanization in the classic sense of cities, but the suburbanization of farmland. The Valley is growing at a rate nearly equal to Mexico, exceeding the Central Valley as a whole, California and the nation by widening margins. Valley growth is, for example, much higher than growth in the metro Sacramento area.

It will be the greatest transformation the Valley has seen since the coming of irrigation, Teitz said. To what effects, he asked.

Increasing asthma (especially among children); more competition for water; loss of wildlife habitat and environmental quality; encroachment on agriculture; increasing conflicts over land use; it raises a profound, unanswered question about what will the future economic base be for this increased population; and growth itself does not seem to address the problems of endemic poverty (“as bad as anywhere in the US,” he said) and high unemployment in the Valley.

Assuming (without admitting he was assuming) this growth is “inevitable,” Teitz presented data from four computer models, to show where this growth might occur over the next 45 years.

Assuming things go on as they are going now, the “let it rip” scenario, the model foresaw a slurb from Fresno to Bakersfield, which Teitz compared with what is happening on the 101 corridor from San Rafael to Ukiah. This scenario presents us with a suburb on prime farmland expanding outward from 99 through most of the Valley. Since it is the most likely scenario, it explains why the Great Valley Center has expended so much attention on the beautification of 99.

The second model assumed there would be no construction on prime farmland. Teitz dismissed it an entirely unrealistic model.

The third model introduced the high-speed railroad and claimed that growth would be denser and clustered around the stations along the route, as if someone knew where those stations might go.

The last scenario assumed major improvement of roads, particularly east-west roads, in the Valley. This one seemed to have less impact on prime farmland than the present growth pattern, Teitz said. Throughout the performance, the professor seemed more interested in the models than in the problem.

But there appear to be several problems with the most likely scenario – “let it rip” growth, what we have today. First is the question: how much asthma is too much asthma, here in the worst air quality basin in the nation? Second, is global warming, which seems to be producing more and more dramatic effects in the world despite its denial by the Bush administration and California developers. Considering global warming, it ought to be the planning principle that – barring evidence the addition of millions of people and their automobiles will not harm the Valley environment – we ought to plan not to grow, to protect what we have. Third is mounting evidence that the world is approaching or has reached the peak of its oil supply and fuel will become scarcer and more expensive as the years go by. This would seem to be an excellent argument for stopping the growth of bedroom communities in the agricultural Valley, when coupled with the complete economic mystery of how the additional millions would be employed in the Valley. In mentioning competition for water, Teitz failed to mention a more immediately pressing problem: water pollution.

It was not even whispered by the planners that California’s population has so far exceeded its resource-carrying capacity that what is called “growth” today, providing a few more billions for a very few billionaires, is entirely at the expense of natural resources the region cannot afford to lose on any account, least of all for the non-human species whose rights to live and evolve have been bulldozed away along with the environment that is intrinsically valuable. Growth in California has damaged the quality of life for everyone and everything.

A classical economics based on human needs rather than desire will either be reinvented in theory, by government and by planning, or it will be forced on us all by events, without any theory, government awareness or planning. At the moment, growth in the Valley is occurring primarily through flight from the more expensive real estate markets of the coast, where the jobs are, rather than any real need or attraction on the part of new residents for the Valley. This is causing and will cause more social friction as good ag land is destroyed to build homes for people who really don’t want to be here.

City planners from Los Banos, Livingston and Merced followed Bill Nicholson, director of the county Planning and Community Development to the podium. Fred Goodrich, the Los Banos planner, remarked that, based on his 26 years of professional planning, growth would go right on, “unfortunately,” because prime farmland is cheaper than Bay Area land and there are enough willing sellers.

Nicholson explained that most of the new growth in the county has been on prime farmland because, although there is political support for preserving it, there is law and regulation in support of preservation of wildlife habitat and endangered species on the rangeland borders of the Valley. He carefully qualified this support as state and federal, not local government. It is certainly true that thousands of acres containing state and federally protected wetlands and endangered species have been deep-ripped in Merced County in recent months without a peep out of Nicholson’s department to federal and state regulating agencies. In fact, so much rangeland habitat and wetlands is going so fast that federal maps of critical habitat and vernal pool recovery plans are quite out-of-date, thanks to the pro-growth attitude of the county, led by the O Pomboza team of Endangered Species Act gutters in Congress.

Both Goodrich and Nicholson indicated the only limitation on growth in the Valley they could foresee would be the costs of the public works projects necessary to provide sewer, water and roads for the new residents. Already, the capacity of the county’s sewers lag far behind its growth.

Donna Kenny, the Livingston planner, announced that Livingston’s new general plan was funded by its two major developers. Her solution to the employment problem was that once the rooftops were built, commercial business would follow.

Merced City planner, Kim Espinoza, explained that Merced was growing.

At the end of the lectures, Susan Walsh, the League official facilitating the meeting, announced that there were many interesting questions from the packed house, but there was no time to answer any of them. So, urging everyone to contact elected officials, she read each question, as if the public mattered in Merced County.

Walsh reads quite well, after having opined earlier in the League workshop that there was no way to stop growth.

Bill Hatch

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