Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

Are Virginia Colleges Deferring Maintenance?

Source: State Council of Higher Education for Virginia

According to calculations of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), the replacement value of the buildings and grounds of Virginia’s public colleges and universities totals $12.2 billion. And according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), institutions should plan for an annual reinvestment rate of between 1.5% and 3.5% of that replacement value to offset wear, tear and depreciation.

The Commonwealth established a maintenance reserve program in 1982 to provide funding for facility repairs that are not addressed in the institutions’ operating budgets and are too small to quality for bond financing. Examples might be roof repairs, boiler and chiller replacements, or major electric system upgrades.

Over the past 10 years, the Commonwealth has chipped in about $75 million per year to the maintenance reserve program, according to a report (page 212) submitted Monday to the SCHEV Resources and Planning Committee. That contribution has fallen consistently short of the 1% guideline ($120 million this year) that SCHEV recommends. As of 2011, the cumulative shortfall had grown to $501 million, and this year the state kicked in only l$63.2 million for higher-ed maintenance. 

Instead of funding the maintenance reserve out of operating revenue, the state addressed the condition of colleges’ buildings and grounds by making two state bond issues for new construction. Those outlays did improve the condition of college and university buildings and grounds. But the effect since FY 2009, states the SCEHV report, has been to change the funding source for the maintenance reserve program from the general fund to bond proceeds.  “As a result, the state bond funding for new construction, renovation and deferred maintenance is constrained by the annual debt capacity.”

As Finance Policy Director Dan Hix reminded SCHEV at its monthly board meeting today, the state has little capacity this year to issue new debt without jeopardizing its AAA bond rating. While some money may be available for higher-ed capital projects, he said, it won’t be much.

The practical consequence of state funding policy, Hix said, has been to compel colleges and universities either to generate their own maintenance funds by raising tuition or to simply put off maintenance projects. He offered no estimate of the size of the deferred maintenance liability.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Commonwealth of Virginia is constitutionally mandated to submit balanced budgets. But as I have blogged in the past, there are many forms of hidden deficit spending. One is unfunded pensions. Another is deferred maintenance. I was unaware before today that there was an issue with the condition of colleges’ buildings & grounds. But I’m not surprised. Deferring maintenance is one of the oldest fiscal tricks in the books — I lay odds that the practice dates back to Nebuchadnezzer and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Given the stress of higher-ed finances, no one would be surprised that it occurs here in Virginia as well.

While we have a sense of how much the state has short-changed its colleges and universities, we don’t know how many institutions sucked it up and found the money to conduct needed maintenance projects, and how many put off the spending for the next guy to worry about. Perhaps that’s an issue that boards of visitors could dig into. If not, maybe the bond rating agencies will find the practice of interest. One way or another, Virginia’s higher-ed system could be building up a big hidden liability.

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.”

Ryan Selected to Lead UVa

The University of Virginia has selected a new president, James E. Ryan, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A former law school professor at the UVa law school, he has a strong ties to the institution, and he has an impressive background and resume.

Read more about his background here.

“The University of Virginia has occupied a special place in my heart since the day I first stepped on Grounds,” said Ryan in a prepared statement. “Returning here to continue playing a role in the extraordinary work of this University community is deeply humbling, and an opportunity that I will strive every day to honor.”

In explaining the section, Rector Frank M. Conner III and former Rector William H. Goodwin stated:

We believe that the next 15 years will be critical in determining the future of higher education in the United States and the role of the University of Virginia in that future. As a leading public institution, we fully embrace the public service mission that we have to the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world to develop citizen leaders in all fields of endeavor and to contribute to the common good in solving the most challenging issues of our time. We know that Jim shares a passion for this purpose. We are confident that he is the perfect leader for this institution at this precise time in history. And we intend to support him in every manner we can in achieving our shared vision.

Neither Conner, Goodwin nor Ryan elaborated upon what that shared vision might be. In a five-minute video accompanying the announcement, Ryan stuck to personal ruminations and gave no hint of what the board expects him to accomplish. Stay tuned. Bacon’s Rebellion will do its best to divine whether the university sticks to its present course or sets out in a new direction.

The World’s Wimpiest Fascist Police State

Photo credit: Cavalier Daily

The University of Virginia supposedly enrolls the smartest kids in the Old Dominion and from around the country. But the 100 student, faculty and community members who demonstrated yesterday around the Thomas Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda,  were puerile, prone to profanity, and shockingly out of touch with reality.

“One month ago, we stood on the front lines in downtown Charlottesville as all manner of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and neo-fascists swarmed the area,” said one speaker, according to the Daily Progress. “Two months ago, the Ku Klux Klan rallied in their safe space, fully robed and fully protected by multiple law enforcement agencies who brutalized and tear gassed peaceful counter-protesters.”

The white supremacists had “safe” spaces? The police “brutalized” peaceful counter-protesters? Yeah, right. That’s not exactly what the rest of the world saw on all those video tapes. These demonstrators aren’t just constructing an alternate narrative, they’re constructing an alternate reality.

It’s one thing to be delusional, another thing to be delusional with pretensions to power: While denouncing racism and castigating the United States as “fascist” — “No Trump, No KKK no fascist USA,” went the chant — these cloistered college radicals demonstrated a totalitarian mindset themselves.

What did these anti-fascists want, insofar as their demands could be discerned among placards that said “Fuck Silence” and a mob that chanted, “Shut it down”? One speaker demanded that all students undergo education on “white supremacy, colonization and slavery as they directly relate to Thomas Jefferson, the university and the city of Charlottesville.” Essentially, these little Stalinists wanted to turn UVa into a re-education camp — with them doing the re-educating.

And how did the UVa administration respond to the unauthorized draping of the Jefferson statue with a black cloth? Wrote the Daily Progress: “UVa had not yet responded to request for comment on the Jefferson statue shrouding by press time. No police officers were observed at the statue on Tuesday night.”

Administrators in absentia and nary a policeman in sight. The world’s wimpiest fascist police state.

Elsewhere on “the grounds”… We have this report from Campus Reform that a group of about 20 UVa students tried to shut down a “cops and robbers”-themed fraternity party because the costumes “make a joke of mass incarceration.”

The frat boys wore orange jumpsuit, bandanas, chains, and tattoos drawn on their arms.

“These ‘costumes’ make a joke of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, systems that disproportionately brutalize people of color,” Students United complains. “The predominantly white members of this fraternity got to take their costumes off at the end of the night, people trapped in the prison system do not.”

“It’s this kind of willful ignorance that allows white supremacy to continue,” the post states unequivocally. “After a summer of terror and violence instigated by white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, it’s at the very least disappointing that members of the UVA community would so willing to make a joke of systems that kill and brutalize marginalized communities.”

Right, as if there are no white people in prison. It’s all about race. Everything’s all about race, twenty-four/seven, for these people.

Fortunately, the scolds and killjoys seem to represent a tiny minority. Their rallies generate less participation than a one-kegger frat party on Rugby Road. But they can’t be ignored. The leftists seem to be able to intimidate other students into mumbling, apologetic silence. They exercise influence all out of proportion to their numbers.

Update: In a letter to alumni yesterday, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan said the protesters were “desecrating ground that many of us consider sacred,” reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. University personnel have removed the shroud. One person was arrested Tuesday for public intoxication.

As long as the protesters didn’t deface the statue, I don’t think that any official reaction is called for. College kids will be college kids, and draping a cloth over Jefferson is no worse than many a college prank. The real issue is the toxic ideology and perpetual outrage the protesters vent. I am divided in my opinion of whether it is best to ignore them in the hope that their rhetoric is so grotesque as to be self-defeating, or to attack them out of the fear that by intimidating others, they might restrict the bounds of acceptable thought and speech.

College Rankings: Got to Love ‘Em, Got to Hate ‘Em

The national rankings encompass 311 institutions. The regional (South) rankings include 149.

The big news in the higher-ed world today is the publication of the 2018 U.S. News & World-Report college rankings, which, despite the many misgivings of anyone who knows anything about academia, remains the most widely followed consumer guide to higher education in America.

The University of Virginia, the commonwealth’s flagship institution, fell a notch to 25th place. Virginia Commonwealth University descended seven steps on the ladder, but Virginia Tech rose five and George Mason University ascended three.

Now, having legitimized the U.S News list by duly reporting the Virginia public college rankings, permit me to denounce it. While the online publication’s profiles of individual institutions contain much useful information, the obsession with rankings has a baleful effect on higher education generally.

Here’s the problem: With the exception of a few for-profit trade schools, higher-ed is a not-profit industry. Colleges and universities do not have shareholders. Therefore, they are not profit maximizing organizations. To people who think that “profit” is a dirty word, associated with exploitation and rapaciousness, the nonprofit status is a good thing. But it’s not as if colleges and universities, both public and private, have used their nonprofit status to hold down tuition & fees. Higher education has been one of the most inflationary sectors of the entire U.S. economy, and higher tuition & fees have been paid largely by the expedient of saddling students with unconscionable levels of debt.

It’s not as if the titans of higher-ed, mindful of their nonprofit status, restrain their appetites for more revenue. They just allocate the money differently. Instead of maximizing profits and returns to shareholders, they maximize the prestige of the institutions with which they are associated and maximize their bureaucratic fiefdoms within those institutions. No matter how much money they bring in, university administrators can always find ways to spend more.

The competition for prestige is a never-ending endeavor, and lists like U.S. News‘ feed the frenzy. No university board of visitors is ever content doing what it has always been doing. Every institution must conceive grand plans to erect new buildings, recruit prestigious faculty, lure smarter, more accomplished students, amass ever larger endowments, and create new, cutting-edge programs. There is never enough money to do all these things — especially when peer institutions are all competing to stand out by the same means. To stand still is to fall behind. To run is to stay in place. Only by sprinting ahead can an institution gain in prestige.

So, by U.S. News standards, the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University, despite all their frenetic activity to build their institutions, fell behind this year. They are deemed less prestigious than they were last year. While the publication does compile separate lists for “best value” and “A-plus schools for B students,” these are given far less prominence, and they get far less media attention. (The Richmond Times-Dispatch article, for example, focuses mainly upon the top-line rankings, never mentioning the more arcane rankings.)

In their lust for status and prestige, colleges and universities plow resources into programs and amenities that provide a diminishing return from an educational perspective. And the cost of education becomes out of reach for an ever-growing share of the population.

Update: Politico argues that the U.S. News ranking reinforce the tendency of colleges to vie for the same top applicants, who overlap to a significant degree with the wealthiest applicants.

For instance, Southern Methodist University in Dallas conducted a billion-dollar fundraising drive devoted to many of the areas ranked by U.S. News, including spending more on faculty and recruiting students with higher SAT scores — and jumped in the rankings. Meanwhile, Georgia State University, which has become a national model for graduating more low- and moderate-income students, dropped 30 spots.

The Politico article provides a database comparing the percentage of students accepted from the Top 1% and the Bottom 60%. Thus, we can see, for example, that the percentage of the Top 1% rose slightly at the College of William & Mary between 2000 and 2011, while the percentage of the bottom 60% declined commensurately.

Community College Students Taking Loads of Unneeded Courses

The Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College, the state’s largest community college.

A cornerstone of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s strategy for making higher education more affordable involves the state’s 23 community colleges. First and foremost, community colleges charge lower tuition than four-year colleges. Second, college-transfer programs enable students to combine two years of relatively inexpensive community college with two years of more costly four-year college to earn a four-year degree. And third, the dual-enrollment program allows students to earn community college credits in high school.

None of these is working as well as it should, concludes the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) in a comprehensive study released today: “Operations and Performance of the Virginia Community College System.”

In the 2015-16 academic year, Virginia’s community colleges enrolled about 111,000 full-time-equivalent students. But only 39% earned a degree or credential that would further their education or improve their prospects in the job market, the study revealed.

There is a cost — to both the student and the state — when a student enrolls in community college but does not attain a credential. The median number of credits earned by non degree-completing students was 42 — the equivalent of nearly a year and a half of full-time attendance at a community college. States the study:

In FY16, a single community college credit cost a student $142.50 in tuition and fees, and cost the state $106.85 in general fund appropriations. At these rates, those 42 credits would cost a student approximately $5,985, either out-of-pocket, or through state, federal, or institutional financial aid. The cost in state general fund appropriations would be about $4,490, bringing the total investment to approximately $10,470 for an individual student.

The problem is most acute among certain groups: older, part-time students, lower-income students, students who are the first in their family to attend college, and students who require remedial course work in English and math.

The community college system permits open enrollment to anyone with a high school diploma. But a majority of students in JLARC’s cohort analysis needed at least one remedial course at some point in their community college studies. Only one-third of students who enrolled in remedial courses ended up earning a credential within seven years, compared to almost half who did not require remedial courses.

JLARC suggested that many community-college students could benefit from academic advising. Ideally, with better guidance, they would pay for fewer courses and be more likely to successfully complete their degree or certification in a more timely manner.

The study team also found that the dual enrollment program is not clearly reducing the time or resources that students invest in earning higher education credentials. Dual enrollment students typically accumulate more credits than their non-enrollment peers.

Finally, the study called into question the utility of the college-transfer program:

Transfer students who earned a bachelor’s degree took longer and earned more credits than their counterparts who started college in a four-year institution. Transfer agreements between the state’s community colleges and four-year institution have proliferated, are not kept up to date, and are not sufficiently accessible to students, making them difficult for students to understand and leverage.

JLARC suggested that streamlining the transfer agreements and making them more accessible would save time and money.

Americans Increasingly Skeptical of Value of Four-Year Degrees

Graphic credit: Wall Street Journal

Americans are finally getting wise to the value of a four-year college degree. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds a significant growth in skepticism over the past four years, especially among Americans who haven’t graduated from a four-year college.

Overall, 49% of Americans believe that earning a four-year degree will lead to a good job and higher lifetime earnings, compared to 47% who don’t — a two-percentage point gap. Four years ago, that gap was 13 points.

Skeptics number in the majority — 57% to 37% — among Americans 18 to 34 years old. That should come as no surprise, as that age group has taken on a disproportionate share of the $1.3 trillion in outstanding student debt and is having the greatest trouble repaying it.

A majority of women still have faith in the four-year degree, reports the Wall Street Journal, but men’s attitude has undergone a dramatic reversal. Four years ago, men saw college as worth the cost by a 12-point margin; today they say its not, by a 10-point margin.

Many observers pushed college attendance on the astonishing superficial grounds that college graduates on average earn higher salaries and experience a lower unemployment rate than those who never went to college. What such analysis ignores is that the average earnings and unemployment for all college grads is not necessarily typical of earnings and unemployment of college grads on the margins, who were less academically prepared, received lower grades, attended less prestigious institutions. It also ignores the ugly reality of millions of Americans who racked up large debts attending college but failed to graduate.

Awareness is spreading that people can earn solid middle-class wages with a couple of years of technical training, without losing two years of earnings attending a four-year college or spending tens of thousands of tuition, fees, room, and board. The WSJ gave a great example:

Jeff McKenna, a 32-year-old from Loveland, Colo. said he doesn’t believe college is worth the cost. Mr. McKenna went to a trade school, earning a certificate as a mechanic and how earns a base salary of $50,000 a year. He said he has never gone three weeks without a job, including during the recession.

“I have friends from high school that are making half what I’m making, and they went and got a four-year degree or better, and they’re still $50, $60, $70,000 dollars in debt,” Mr. McKenna said. “There’s a huge need for skilled labor in this country.”

Indeed there is. As more people — young men, mostly — think like Jeff McKenna, there will be a growing demand for community colleges and trade schools that teach marketable blue-collar skills. Skepticism runs greatest in the college-age population, making it likely that four-year colleges will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their enrollments. Those at greatest risk are institutions that appeal to precisely those demographics — rural, lower-income, male — where skepticism runs the deepest.

Virginia Online Network Targets Adult Learners

Online learning at Old Dominion University, a key participant in the Virginia Online Network.

Several years ago when Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, was still teaching high school government classes in Chesterfield County and serving as majority leader in the House of Delegates, he had to take a continuing-education course to get his teaching re-certification.

“I went, wow, my schedule was crazy. There was no way I could get to a class,” he recalls. “I was swamped teaching and doing the majority leader thing.”

Cox’s salvation was online learning. Finding time to study at night, he managed to complete his re-certification requirements. Likewise, his wife Julie earned a Master’s degree in crisis counseling through an online course delivered by Liberty University. Having seen the advantages of online learning close-up, he has become a big believer. He sees the online learning as a big part of the higher-ed future, and he wants Virginia’s public institutions to get more involved.

Kirk Cox. (Photo credit: Roanoke Times.)

Cox took the legislative lead in 2015 to create the Online Virginia Network (OVN), a portal delivering online courses from Old Dominion University, George Mason University, and other public Virginia institutions that develop online capabilities. The portal, which targets 1.1 million Virginians who have taken some college courses but not completed their degree, has its debut this fall semester. Last time he checked, says Cox, OVN was on track to meet its target enrollment of 225 students.

“My immediate target with the OVN is adult learners with some college credit,” says Cox. “Military guys. Working moms. A four-year degree would be extremely beneficial for them.”

As he knows from personal experience, it’s not easy for working people to return to school. The dominant educational model offers classes at set times during the day, typically on a Tuesday-Thursday or a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule. “If you’re working, that’s tough,” says Cox. “We want to make it easier for these folks to come back and help them get a higher-paying job.”

Private schools — including Liberty University, which Cox says, has “eaten our lunch in the online space” — offer online courses as well. But tuition at Virginia institutions, subsidized by the state, is more affordable. Previously, students could enroll in either ODU or GMU’s online programs, but they were restricted to the course offerings of each individual institution. With OVN, they will be able to mix and match courses from both institutions, as well as from colleges and community colleges that join the consortium in the future.

“The portal brings all the online programs together in one place,” says Tony Maggio, a fiscal analyst for the House Appropriations Committee. “The programs themselves will reside in the host institutions. A degree program could come from multiple providers. The experience will be seamless from the student’s perspective.”

OVN funding will provide counselors to help students navigate the system as well as a net cost calculator to help evaluate the most efficient path forward.

The program works nicely for ODU and GMU as well.

“It’s a natural connection,” says Dr. Ellen J. Neufeldt, vice president of student engagement and enrollment services at ODU, which operates the largest online program of any public university in Virginia. About 20% of ODU’s students, many of them in the military, are already online.

“The Online Virginia Network initiative aligns with our mission of affordability and access and has influenced the way Mason serves undergraduate students online,” says Robin Rose Parker, a director for strategic engagement & communications AT GMU. “This complements our online efforts at the graduate level and helps us leverage the online model to reach many more potential students. In fact, OVN has provided Mason with the opportunity to further target a key segment in Virginia — the adult learner — an increasingly significant part of the community we serve.”

The present incarnation of OVN is just the beginning. Building the network is Cox’s number one higher-ed priority in the 2018 session, which, given the fact that he is the newly elected Speaker of the House, means it will be a top priority of the House of Delegates.

Cox says he hopes to find ways to wring out costs of online attendance. Why, he asks, should online students be charged student activity and athletic fees? Is there a way for online students to share instructional materials rather than pay thousands of dollars for textbooks? Can classes be structured so that super-popular instructors can reach more students?

He also will work to coax other Virginia higher-ed institutions into participating in the network. In his view, there’s more at stake than helping students earn college degrees, as important as that is. The educational industry is changing, and Virginia’s public universities need to get a foothold online to adapt.

With their big endowments and deep alumni bases, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech may not have to change their residential-college model, Cox says. But he’s convinced that the high-cost, high-tuition model at most institutions is unsustainable.

“If you’re not innovative — if you’re not holding costs down — you’re going to be in trouble,” Cox says. “For the viability of our public institutions, they’ve got to be in that space.”

When All Else Fails, Try Cutting Costs and Tuition

Meredith Woo, president of Sweet Briar College, is leading one of the most audacious experiments in higher education today.

In a bid to stave off insolvency, Sweet Briar College is undertaking a major restructuring of its business model — hacking out administrative costs, reorganizing the curriculum, clarifying its mission, and slashing the cost of attendance by 32 percent. In the new academic year, the cost of tuition, fees, room, and board will total $34,000, down from $50,055 previously.

That’s still high compared to the cost of a public education, but very competitive compared to the cost of attendance at other private, liberal arts universities. Moreover, as one of the few remaining women’s-only higher ed institutions left in the United States, Sweet Briar stands out with its educational mission: graduating “women of consequence.”

“Sweet Briar is in a very unique position to make these big sweeping changes,” President Meredith Woo told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We’re building from the point of almost zero.”

The women’s college, located north of Lynchburg, nearly closed in 2015 after deteriorating finances prompted the board of directors to vote unanimously in favor of a shut-down. Alumni rallied to save the institution, raising $12 million to help cover 2015-16 expenses. Woo, former dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia, was recruited to turn the college around.

The T-D describes the momentous changes that have been enacted in a time that is remarkably short by the standards of ossified academic decision-making:

The curriculum change, which was led by a faculty task force over the course of three months, focuses the women’s-only school’s core on women’s leadership with students taking 10 to 12 “integrated courses” that “refocus Sweet Briar’s general education requirements on its greatest strength: developing “women of consequence.”

It also abolishes academic departments in favor of three interdisciplinary “centers of excellence,” which Woo said will eliminate levels of bureaucracy by getting rid of the administrative units. The academic calendar at Sweet Briar is moving from 15-week semesters to a 3-12-12-3 schedule with the goal of increasing experiential learning opportunities.

“We want to let the world know that excellent liberal arts education can be affordable,” Woo said in an interview.

Enrollment has declined by half, to about 300 students, since the beginning of Sweet Briar’s highly publicized difficulties. But Woo expects the student count will rebound as the reformed curriculum attracts attention.

Woo did not discuss finances with the T-D. But she expressed optimism about the college’s future: “Women’s education is only beginning around the world. This is a great time to be a women’s college.”

Bacon’s bottom line: It’s one thing for loyal alumni to scrape up millions of dollars to keep the college afloat for a year or two. It’s quite another to develop a sustainable business model. Small colleges around the country are pruning and retrenching, but none that I know of has undertaken such a dramatic transformation. Sweet Briar bears watching. If the college can thrive by slashing costs and tuition, it could serve as an exemplar for the higher-ed industry generally.

What the Looming Higher-Ed Shakeout Means for Small College Towns

Sweet Briar College, affectionately known in my college days as “Sweets”

Two years after alumni rallied to save Sweet Briar College, raised millions of dollars and installed a new president, the small, liberal arts college north of Lynchburg still is in peril. The college admitted only 81 freshmen into its fall class — well below the 200 officials previously had estimated the institution needed to remain financially viable.

President Meredith Woo said spending came in significantly under budget last year, and the college can afford smaller class sizes. But the college is surviving on donor dollars, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Perhaps Sweet Briar will be able to reinvent itself as a smaller, niche institution. While few have come as close to the edge of disaster as Sweet Briar, dozens of other small liberal arts colleges are facing similar dilemmas.

According to the Journal, more than one-third of colleges with fewer than 3,000 full-time students had operating deficits in fiscal 2016, up from 20% in fiscal 2013. Likewise, finance chiefs of private, nonprofit colleges are increasingly pessimistic — only 51% indicated in a poll that their institutions will be financially or sustainable over the next five years, down from 65% the previous year.

Restructuring is rampant. Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn., is dropping business and nursing programs, and eliminating residential living, to focus on training Catholic school teachers. Margrove College in Detroit is discontinuing undergraduate programs to concentrate on its graduate students. Wheelock University  in Boston has put its president’s house and a residence hall up for sale and has entered merger talks with Boston University.

Virginia has two dozen small, private, non-profit colleges, many located in small cities and towns. In many cases, they form the backbone of the local economy. As if rural/small town Virginia didn’t have enough other economic worries, non-metro Virginia could be experiencing the erosion of one of the few economic pillars it has left.

A handful of these institutions look rock solid — Washington & Lee University, the University of Richmond, and Liberty University have large and growing endowments, and have no trouble recruiting students. I don’t know enough about the others to draw any conclusions about their fiscal health, but it would behoove those interested in the well being of their communities to take a close look and make sure their local college isn’t about to become the next St. Paul’s College (now defunct) or Sweet Briar.

For readers’ edification, here are the private, non-profit schools in Virginia:

Appalachian School of Law — Grundy
Averett University — Danville
Bluefield College — Bluefield
Bridgewater College — Bridgewater
Christendom College — Front Royal
Eastern Mennonite University — Harrisonburg
Emory and Henry College — Damascus
Ferrum College — Ferrum
Hampden-Sydney College — Farmville
Hampton University — Hampton
Hollins University — Roanoke
Liberty University — Lynchburg
Lynchburg College — Lynchburg
Mary Baldwin University — Staunton
Marymount University — Arlington
Randolph-Macon College — Ashland
Randolph College — Lynchburg
Regent University — Virginia Beach
Roanoke College — Salem
Shenandoah University — Winchester
Sweet Briar College — Amherst
Union Presbyterian Seminary — Richmond
University of Richmond — Richmond
Virginia Union University — Richmond
Virginia Wesleyan University — Virginia Beach
Washington & Lee University — Lexington