Bacon's Rebellion

College Presidents Seek Winning Political Message

Heywood Fralin, chairman of the State Council of Higher Education, proposed creating a committee of college presidents and SCHEV board members, to address critical issues facing higher-ed in Virginia.

Virginia’s college presidents feel under siege, and they seek a political message that will resonate with citizens and the General Assembly

Fearful of eroding political sympathy for higher education, the presidents of Virginia’s public colleges and universities informally agreed this afternoon to cooperate in creating a council of presidents and crafting a message that will win support for preserving state and federal funding.

A recurring theme during the discussion at an annual meeting of the presidents with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) was that higher ed should emphasize pocketbook issues such as growing the economy and preparing Virginians for the jobs of the future.

“Everyone is concerned about economic development. A lot of those efforts are sputtering,” said Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia. “Every one of us has a business dean. We should lock them up in a room and not let them out until they come up with a plan.”

Virginia’s higher-ed sector needs to define its “value proposition,” suggested Gil Minor, a former SCHEV chairman, Virginia Military Institute rector and former chairman of Owens  Minor, a Fortune 500 company. “We don’t talk about the value of an education in Virginia.” Colleges need to tell the General Assembly, “Invest in us, and we’ll give you a payback.”

While the gathering acknowledged the need to do a better job of communicating, there were few illusions that higher ed will get a friendly reception by members of the General Assembly and the public.

“The public believes we’re creating Taj Mahals,” noted Heywood Fralin, SCHEV chairman.

“Significant parts of the General Assembly seems to have very little regard for higher education,” said Taylor Revely III, president of the College of William & Mary.

“We’re always seen in Richmond as having our hand out — we’re takers,” said Sullivan. “No matter how much we call it ‘investment,’ it comes out sounding like ‘spending.'”

An area of universal agreement was that cutbacks in state support to higher education over the years has forced public colleges and universities to raise their tuition, and that tuition levels have nearly reached the breaking point. While Virginia’s elite universities still may have leeway to increase tuition, several institutions face the prospect of losing students if their costs go higher. A decision by the Norfolk State University board to raise tuition aggressively on out-of-state students resulted in a decline in out-of-state enrollment from 30% of the student body to 11%, said President Eddie Moore. “I can’t let the tuition run away.”

George Mason University President Angel Cabrera framed the issue as bigger than just the Virginia General Assembly. Fiscal pressures are putting the squeeze on federal financial assistance like Pell Grants, and states across the country are cutting state support for higher ed. “We as a society have decided to invest less in higher ed and to shift the cost to families,” he said. “Of course, when the tuition bill hits the citizens, it’s not a lot of fun.”

The presidents identified numerous culprits responsible for rising costs and tuition levels at colleges at universities. State and federal government impose too many regulations. “Take the regulations that exist and slay 25% of them, and the world would continue to rotate on its axis,” said Revely with William & Mary. He compared the excessive government oversight to parents who try to regulate every aspect of their child’s behavior. “It doesn’t lead to good results.”

Potential cutbacks to Pell grants also are worrisome. About 30% of GMU’s students depend upon Pell, said Cabrera.

The higher-ed leaders also expressed concern about DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) legislation in Congress. “We have Dreamers in every university in the state,” said Cabrera. “Two-thirds are in Northern Virginia.” Over and above the humanitarian principles at stake, the presidents worried about the potential reduction in enrollment and loss of revenue.

But the biggest threat to Virginia higher ed,  in the estimation of SCHEV members and presidents alike, is the steady erosion of state support to the public institutions.

“I think we’ll find that a lot of our priorities are the same,” said SCHEV chairman Fralin. “We have to talk more about tuition and what causes increases in tuition. … I believe that, when all the facts are disclosed, the colleges have done a pretty good job of controlling costs. But that’s not the message to the public.”

In the 2011 Top Jobs Act, the General Assembly set a goal for Virginia’s higher ed system to produce an additional 100,ooo degrees and certificates by 2030. It costs money to expand enrollment but “the additional monies have not been forthcoming from the Commonwealth,” said Fralin. Another example of the institutions are getting squeezed: The state encouraged colleges to build more buildings but has not provided money to cover their maintenance. “Tuition dollars go to maintaining these buildings,, which was not the plan at the time they were built.”

Fralin said it was time for another restructuring of higher ed in Virginia, on a par with the 2005 Restructuring Act, which theoretically gave colleges and universities more freedom from state oversight, including the ability to raise tuition, in exchange for more accountability for achieving state goals for higher-ed such as affordability and accessibility. The state needs to consider once-unthinkable options such as bolstering out-of-state enrollments in order to reap their big tuition payments, or creating a higher-ed reserve fund to smooth out volatile state contributions that make it difficult for colleges to plan. A third idea is to bolster ties with Virginia high schools to better inform grads — especially the 43% who never go on to college or community college — of the potential career opportunities that await them.

These things won’t happen, Fralin said, if SCHEV and the presidents meet only once a year. He proposed creating a committee of university presidents to address critical issues of common concern.

While NSU’s Moore and Old Dominion University President John Broderick pushed back on the idea of raising tuition aggressively — they’ve largely hit their limit — there was general buy-in for the idea of creating a president’s committee. No formal vote was taken, however, nor did anyone outline a structure for the committee.

Paul Trible, president of Christopher Newport University, thanked SCHEV for its emerging role in recent years as a “champion” of Virginia’s colleges and universities. “My colleagues appreciate the fact that you’ve been willing to become the advocate of higher education.”

But he issued a warning: “There isn’t going to be any more money in the next session” for higher ed. Medicaid will take the first claim on increased state funds, and K-12 education, whose standards of quality are mandated by the state constitution, will stand in line ahead of colleges and universities. If higher ed is going to do something, he urged, “Let’s stop being incremental. Let’s be dramatic. Let’s be bold.”

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