Universities: During COVID, Where Does All the Overhead Go?

Full disclosure: I am a disgruntled U.S. taxpayer whose Venezuelan nephew and niece are in U.S. universities.  My wife and I pay everything for their education.  Our nephew tried studying chemical engineering in Venezuela but with the on again, off again system under the Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro dictatorships, it was chaotic at best.  We brought both kids (young adults) to the U.S. on student visas; enrolled them in English classes; then watched them as they went into community college then the university.  Both kids are great students and make their Tia and Tio proud.  Even in community college, we had to pay the foreign student premium.  Our nephew went to community college and then the University of California.  Our niece went to community college in Florida and now university in California.  My wife half-heartedly joked that we would be paying less if they had come into the country illegally like her friends at the extension college where she took classes years ago in San Diego.  So you get it that I have a beef with the system that forces my wife and I to pay our “fair share.”  That got me to thinking about our common enemy, the Wuhan virus.

Many have lost their jobs due to the Wuhan virus.  Fortunately, President Trump stepped up to the challenge in many ways that the Democrats seem to forget.  For those with short-term memory loss, and in Sleepy Joe’s case, long-term, Trump pushed to get money out to those people in dire need.  President Trump did it again recently through sleight of hand to bypass the crass whims of the Democrats to salvage blue state governors’ economic disasters that were self-inflicted.  Jobs were lost, but they were not public sector jobs. To return to the issue of universities, which includes many in the public sector, how many of those staffers in education lost their jobs due to the Wuhan virus and its stay-at-home orders?  What is the relationship of those employed, or not, based on being organized into a union, or not?

The cost of post-secondary education, like any business may be segregated into direct costs and indirect costs.  Direct costs might include labor for the professors who teach classes, for example.  Indirect costs might include staff that support the university.  Buildings and other facilities such as parking lots and centralized utilities and/or distribution systems are costs that continue to be amortized.  If classes are forced to be virtual, aren’t costs to the university reduced?  Buildings don’t require the full amount of utilities versus a normal school year.  We all know what winter heating in cold areas and summer cooling in warm areas of the country are like.  What about the lighting bills?  How often does one need to clean a classroom not in use?  If the sports teams are not competing what happens to those budgets for travel to away games?

I received my bachelor’s in chemical engineering.  Our university had a great relationship with industry.  As a result, many industrial facilities donated equipment to Cal Poly Pomona that was used in their respective industries.  For example, we had a distillation column in our unit operations lab.  It takes a lot of energy to boil gallons of an alcohol-water mixture and separate the two liquids.  This is one of many examples of one weekly three-hour lab class for which I gained (and paid) for one credit.  Where are these savings going since these labs are not operating?  There are staff requirements to maintain these labs when they are being operated.  My nephew will receive “theoretical data” from his professor to analyze and write his report.  The professor does not have to be there for the full three hours to supervise (or, in some cases, a teaching assistant), the students.  I am more of a visual learner and can remember my association with the extraction of samples from valves at different plate levels in elevation where the vapor would condense into liquids of varying proportions of alcohol to water as one moved up in elevation along the distillation column.

What happens with those universities that have on-campus dormitories with no students to occupy them?  No canteens are needed to feed either the dormitory students or the commuters.  Most professors are tasked with teachers’ assistants.  Those burdens are hardly required are they?  With the various lockdowns and requirements for social distancing what happens to those pesky expense accounts for conferences, hotels, airline tickets, meals, and other transportation costs?

Here is a little table to give one an idea of relative costs in the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 years for an undergraduate student at the University of California San Diego as published by UCSD and the University of California minimum salary scales, all available on the Internet:

We pay three times the rate for the same education as a DACA student for our nephew.  It does not matter that our nephew spent a year in English training; three years with the San Diego Community College District (also paying a premium as non-resident); and last year at UCSD. 

What is a bit bothersome is that we are paying more this year, albeit a couple of hundred bucks, and getting less for his education.  I have implied that in the example earlier about hands-on laboratory work versus the virtual laboratory assignments.  What seems odd is that the primary direct cost, professors’ salaries have been reduced from last year.  For example, a Step 9 professor made as a minimum of $175,800 last year.  It has been reduced to $167,200 this year.  Why?  Is this a sleight of hand that shoves more to the less obvious benefits that a professor receives?  So where does all that university overhead cost go during the Wuhan virus?

It doesn’t matter how much our nephew was liked at SDCC where he was a mentor for international students.  SDCC continues to display banners downtown with his image advertising the school.  It doesn’t matter how much our nephew volunteers as a bilingual science and math instructor to teach and engage kids in the barrio as a role model.  He got paid as a mentor at SDCC but the rules are, unless you are offered a job at the school where you attend, federal law prevents a foreign student from seeking employment elsewhere.  My wife and I are concerned what will happen to our nephew when he graduates with a BSChE next year.  Ego talking here but this is a tough degree to get and one which I would hope there is great demand.  If he is forced to return to Venezuela, he will be doomed.  President Trump, this is an example of essentially a home grown educated asset.  How do we keep this asset in the USA?

Image credit: Pikist public domain