Chancellor Block Interview with La Tercera

Chancellor Block Interview with La Tercera

Article originally published by La Tercera

By Juan Paulo Iglesias

Gene Block has been chancellor of UCLA for nearly nine years. During this period of time he has been both a witness and a driver of the many changes that universities are experiencing in the 21st century. A process, that maybe because of his training as a biologist, he prefers to call evolution. On his visit to Chile, Block talked to La Tercera about the challenges that universities face and the growing debate about access and costs. It’s a topic that has been the focus of discussion in the U.S. due to some of the proposals offered by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

UCLA is among the 10 or 15 best universities in the world. How do you achieve that?

There are several reasons. We are located in Los Angeles, the second largest city in the U.S., and that allows us to attract outstanding faculty that compete globally and who are dedicated to the development of new knowledge as well as teaching. That in turn attracts extraordinary students from different parts of the world and very diverse backgrounds.

Being at that level also involves very high costs. How is the university funded?

From different sources. Being a public university, we get state funding, which represents about 23 to 24 percent of our operating budget. We receive approximately double that amount from student fees and tuition. In addition, we receive revenue from philanthropy, donations we receive from individuals, and income from research. Historically, until about 15 years ago, the state covered the largest portion. At the moment, students are the ones who pay the largest share.

The indebtedness of students has been part of the discussion in the U.S. presidential campaign. How do you deal with this issue?

We are concerned about student indebtedness. Fortunately, in the case of UCLA, student loan debt isn’t very high. Approximately 52 percent of our students graduate without debt. For the rest, the average debt is about $22,000. That is not a very high figure if you consider the total cost of the education and the benefits for our students in the job market.

Why is this the case for UCLA?

In part because public universities have lower tuition and fees—approximately $12,000 a year. But we also offer a lot of financial aid. A third of the approximately $12,000 that students pay in tuition is set aside for financial aid for low-income students. I estimate that about half of our students have all their tuition covered. There’s also a program that ensures that if a family makes less than $80,000 a year, the student has 100 percent of his tuition covered.

Do you think that having a tuition-free university is possible?

I think it’d be too complex financially. In the U.S. that would be extraordinarily expensive. I’ve been in favor of providing free education in community colleges. I think this would be feasible (affordable) and it would help low-income students to have at least two years of free higher education. I think a modest program to have a free component of higher education like community colleges has merit, but I don’t think that we can afford the costs of an entirely free university. We should instead focus on the most needy students. That’s why I think the model of the University of California is a good model. Students who need it most receive substantial financial support and those who can pay, pay.

Another debate we’ve had in Chile is about for-profit universities. Do you think they put at risk the quality of higher education?

Pro-profit universities are growing in the U.S. Some have been questioned for their low graduation rates and high levels of student indebtedness. This is something new, an experiment in progress. They have been criticized for failing to offer enough quality given their cost, although the model could be more successful. There’s nothing that should prevent for-profit colleges from offering a high quality education.

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