Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

Gross vs. Net in College Tuitions

How expensive are Virginia colleges and universities compared to their peers in other states? The cost of attendance, including tuition, fees, room, board, books and supplies at four-year public Virginia colleges and universities in the 2016-17 school year averaged $26,904 — only a hair higher than the national average. This data is taken from a presentation by legislative fiscal analyst April Kees to the Senate Finance Committee this morning.

That chart above shows the sticker price for a year of college education. Lower-income students don’t pay the full freight. They receive big breaks in the form of financial aid from the state, Uncle Sam, and the institutions themselves. So, if your family generates income of $20,000 to $29,999 a year (2014-15 year numbers), your net cost of attendance drops considerably, as seen here in this chart comparing four Virginia institutions:

You get a ginormous break if you attend the College of William & Mary (CWM), which has the market power to jack up the tuition to raise more money for financial aid. You even get a hefty discount if you attend Radford University, the University of Virginia-Wise, or Virginia Tech (VT).

The massive redistribution of wealth provides major heartburn to Virginia’s upper middle class, which tends to pay the full tuition. In theory, the means-testing can be justified on the grounds that a college education provides an avenue of upward social mobility for poor and working-class Virginians who could not afford to attend otherwise.

The New Look of Virginia High School Grads, Circa 2030

Lots of good data coming out of the retreats of the House and Senate appropriations committees yesterday and today… The chart above appeared in a presentation by April Kees, legislative fiscal analyst, to the Senate Finance Committee.

By 2030, whites will constitute a bare majority of high school graduates in Virginia. The percentage of blacks will shrink slightly, while percentages of Asians and Hispanics will soar.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is what college administrators are talking about when they allude to a challenging demographic future. The percentage of Hispanic students graduating from high school and populating the potentially college-bound population will grow by six percentage points, offsetting the seven-point decline in the percentage of whites. Insofar as whites tend to come from more affluent families, to attend better schools and to be better academically prepared than Hispanics, colleges are bracing for student bodies that need more remedial work and financial assistance.

On the other hand, Asian students tend to come from more affluent households and to be better prepared academically than all other ethnic groups, including whites. They could prove to be a mother lode for institutions looking for students with high SAT scores and no need of financial assistance.

Will a Conservative Backlash Hit Higher-Ed in the Pocketbook?

Left-wing protest at the University of California-Berkeley.

Two weeks ago, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato urged Virginia colleges and universities to be friendlier to Republican legislators. His motives were pragmatic. If higher-ed wants more money from state taxpayers, it might behoove colleges and universities to not treat members of the majority party like lepers when they set foot on college campuses.

Sabato identified a big problem for higher-ed — a problem that came into sharp focus with an important op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. In that essay, John M. Ellis, a professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California-Santa Cruz, argues that higher-ed “is close to the end of a half-century process by which the campuses have been emptied of centrist and right-of-center voices. … More than half of the spectrum of political and social ideas has been banished from the classrooms.”

Whereas in 1969, there were overall about twice as many left-of-center as right-of-center faculty, today, the ratio is more like 10 to one. And in the humanities and social science departments — history, English, and political science — the share of left-of-center faculty already approaches 100%.

Ellis laments the impact of increasing philosophical-political conformity in academia on the quality of thought.

Well-balanced opposing views act as a corrective for each other: The weaker arguments of one side are pounced on and picked off by the other. Both remain consequently healthier and more intellectually viable. But intellectual dominance promotes stupidity. As one side becomes numerically stronger, its discipline weakens. The greater the imbalance between the two sides, the more incoherent and irrational the majority will become.

What we are now seeing on the campuses illustrates this general principle perfectly. The nearly complete exclusion of one side has led to complete irrationality on the other. … Campus radicals have lost the ability to engage with arguments and resort instead to the lazy alternative of name-calling: Opponents are all “fascists,” “racists” or “white supremacists.”

Extremism and demagoguery win out. Physical violence is the endpoint of this intellectual decay — the stage at which academic thought and indeed higher education have ceased to exist.

Beyond lamenting the decay in thought, Ellis makes the connection to parents and taxpayers. “The public pays huge sums, both through tuition and taxation, to educate young people, and except in STEM subjects, most of that money is being wasted. Those who pay the bills have the power to stop this abuse of higher education if they organize themselves effectively. (My emphasis.)

Bacon’s bottom line: Millions of Americans regard higher education in the United States as hostile to their values and political views. Millions of Americans send their children off to college, fearing that they will be inculcated with those antithetical values, and they do so only because they perceive that getting a “college education” is the only pathway for their children into the middle class. Increasingly, they resent paying sky-high tuition, and they resent subsidizing the their childrens’ brainwashers with taxpayer dollars. Given the circumstances, how can anyone be surprised if public colleges and universities find eroding popular support for taxpayer subsidies? Only someone warmly encased in an ideological cocoon — like an institution of higher education — could fail to see the obvious.

In today’s hyper-polarized political and cultural environment, Republicans and conservatives increasingly view higher-ed as the enemy — which, in fact, it often is — many in higher-ed see Republicans and conservatives as the enemy! Thus, we see in Congress a Republican move to tax the income of the biggest private college/university endowments, which is seen as a subsidy for liberal-progressive institutions. Meanwhile, in statehouses across the country, legislators have been slashing state support for public higher ed.

Here in Virginia, we must bear in mind that John Ellis is part of the California system of higher education which arguably has the most leftist orientation of any system in the country. The shut-down of conservative voices that occurs in California campuses does not occur in Virginia — not yet. (Unless you count the drowning out of ACLU lawyer Claire Gastanaga at the College of William & Mary, in which case the phenomena has reached Virginia.) The political orientation of Virginia faculty and administrators is assuredly far to the left of the population generally. What we, as members of the public, do not know is the degree to which that is so. Are Virginia institutions as intolerant as California institutions, just more quietly so? My sense, based on anecdotal data, is that a somewhat broader spectrum of views prevails. But I have no hard evidence to back that up.

Ellis suggests that those who pay the bills might “get organized” in protest. So far, I have seen no sign of a broad-based movement emerging here in Virginia. Boards of trustees rubber stamp administrative initiatives. Supine alumni think little beyond the next tailgate party. No one questions the conventional pieties. But university leaders had better beware. But if the general population ever becomes as hostile to higher education as denizens of higher education are hostile to the general population, political support for state funding could deteriorate faster than you can say, “safe space.”

Toxic Brew: Relativism and Globalism

by Reed Fawell III

For the past six years, I have warned about the damage that unrestrained and hyper-competitive academic research is inflicting on the quality of higher education in the United States. The tenor of my complaints has grown more strident over the years.

Initially, these complaints were jump-started by a May, 2011, memo from University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan to then-Rector Helen Dragas. Sullivan proposed, in my view, to dramatically dilute the education and teaching of undergraduate students at UVa. in favor of radical increases in faculty research, most particularly in STEM research.

UVa.’s ambition, I felt, was unduly driven by several powerful and damaging trends ongoing in higher education. One was UVa.’s compulsion to climb the rankings of US News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” reports, whose standards and formulas demanded ever higher expenditures on non-teaching activities, be they for luxury student accommodations and cuisine food courts or feeding the expanding needs of highly paid tenured research faculty.

A related contributor, in my view, was the Obama administration’s ambition, announced in 2011, to dramatically increase federal funding of academic STEM research. Rather than making American students more competitive internationally in the STEM fields, the STEM emphasis has fueled hyper competition among institutions and faculties chasing federal grants and favors.

Likely, too, this same impulse powered the rise of the “Strategic (Research) Investment Fund” that abruptly appeared in public at UVa for the first time five years later to most everyone’s surprise (although it was hinted at three or four years earlier for legal reasons). However covert, UVa leadership deemed the fund necessary because university research almost always costs more than it generates in revenue. In the business model of today’s research-driven university, universities often divert student tuition and teaching resources to the research of tenured professors.

Not only do students wind up paying higher tuition and get less attention from senior faculty, professors often requisition their personal time and talents for research projects. In effect, students become low-age apprentices whose exploitation helps faculty rake in massive research contracts, profit from patents, and even launch business enterprises based on new technology.

I was worried six years ago that these practices would undermine UVa’s stature as a nationally recognized institution that specialized in teaching undergraduate arts and sciences that armed students to think independently and confidently, whether they are training in politics, philosophy, entrepreneurship, the classics, history, mathematics or physics.

My concerns grew as I observed various pieces of the plan fall into place. More recently, I have become fully convinced that the emphasis on university R&D and STEM research has infected all tiers of higher learning. The siren call of STEM is drawing colleges and universities from their primary and critical mission to empower students to become independent, well rounded, and effective agents of change.

Instead, over these past six years, I concluded that higher education has undermined the ability of students to stand on their own two feet. As early as the mid-1980s, William Bennett, then Head of the National Council of the Arts and Humanities, predicted the demise of the humanities at our elite national universities. He foretold the infection and destruction of traditional courses in the liberal arts and humanities (history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and literature, particularly western literature and the classics) with post-modernist relativism, deconstruction, and critical culture theory. His fears have come to pass.

Academic leftists have weaponized this poison in the form of political correctness, safe spaces, claims of micro-aggression, and politics grounded in race and gender to drive an endlessly growing list of grievances and create a new identity-based hierarchy on the college campus. Much of this ideology has played out in Charlottesville with the UVa administration’s witting connivance, especially in the furtherance of the “epidemic of rape” canard.

Remarkably, efforts to undermine American culture and society went largely unopposed for decades. Leftists have succeeded in hollowing out the center of our culture, and its confidence, and its coherence, and its ability to function. Now it is spreading chaos everywhere. Our institutions of higher learning have, to a marked degree, abandoned not only their roots but their sponsors, their fund-payers, their students, and in some cases the very buildings and spaces they inhabit in their quest for greener fields worldwide.

This they call “Globalism,” which works in tandem with the explosion of research at elite universities to widen the fields of academic research to most everything, and every potential client, under the sun, while ignoring much of America’s past, and its historic culture. Witness Teresa Sullivan’s grand pilgrimage to China, a quest to set up a branch, or perhaps a second main campus, for Mr. Jefferson’s University snuggled up close to the Forbidden City in Peking.

But higher education’s ill-fated embrace of Globalism now runs the risk of leaving the newly constructed university curriculum stranded on shifting sands.   The tides are already running out. Newly constructed departments of global arts and sciences are encountering strong counter currents of resistance here and aboard.

Students in other nations, who take great pride in their own histories and cultures, are not always receptive to listening to American professors talk about their institutions. The globalist agenda of American professors is perceived as another form of Western imperialism.

At home, the problem is different.  American students increasingly feel left behind. They feel cheated out of their right to learn about their own history, people and culture, before being taught or told to venture out into another peoples’ culture. Indeed, American and European academics increasing agree with their students. Hence globalist courses and departments are contracting, not growing, at a time when the movement has just started.

In short, American’s elite research universities must shift their grand globalist ambitions and research driven plans. Federal research funds are shrinking. Teaching is disappearing.  Science itself is under threat. And Americans now want their children educated to live and thrive in the real world, not one invented by other people.

Reed Fawell III, a retired attorney and real estate developer, is an alumnus of the University of Virginia.

Bacon Bits: Campaign Contributions, Bronze Parachutes, and Bus Subsidies

Herewith some follow-ups on stories we’ve been tracking on Bacon’s Rebellion:

Election fallout for electric utilities: Tuesday’s election wasn’t just a rout for Republicans. The General Assembly will be a more hostile place for Virginia’s electric utilities as well. As Robert Zullo with the Richmond Times-Dispatch points out: “Thirteen candidates who signed a pledge refusing to accept campaign cash from Virginia’s two big utilities won seats in the House of Delegates Tuesday. Seven of those support prohibiting Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power from making political donations.”

Bronze parachute for Virginia Tech provost. Former Virginia Tech Provost Thanassis Rikakis, whose resignation was announced last month, is on paid administrative leave through the end of the year and will continue to receive his $414,000 salary through Aug. 10, 2018. Rikakis, who riled up faculty for reasons that still remain obscure to me, apparently will be allowed to take on a new job as a direct report to President Timothy Sands, earning a mere $275,000 a year as “presidential fellow for academic innovation.” The Roanoke Times reports that he will continue to work on initiatives he had launched as provost, such as “Beyond Boundaries, Destination Areas, the PIBB budget model, the Honors College and the Health Science and Technology campus concepts.”

The bus route to nowhere? The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) is subsidizing a Megabus bus service between Blacksburg and Washington, D.C., with stops in Christiansburg, Lexington, Staunton, Harrisonburg, Front Royal, Washington Dulles International Airport and Arlington. Riders boarding in Blacksburg for the full ride will pay $50. According to a 2013 study, reports the Roanoke Times, the route could generate 15,550 riders per year, generate $578,000 in revenue, and run a $417,000 deficit. Virginia receive about $15 million a year in federal funding for rural transportation projects, and is required to set aside $2.3 million for intercity bus service.

“The Virginia Breeze improves mobility choices for underserved communities by offering an alternative to driving along the congested Interstate 81 and 66 corridors, which need travel options,” DRPT Director Jennifer Mitchell said. “Intercity bus travel gets people out of cars and where they want to go affordably, comfortably and reliably.”

The Research Crisis in Higher Ed

Mark Edwards

The modern American research university is in crisis. Perverse rewards and incentives create an unhealthy “hyper-competition” among research scientists and encourage unethical behavior that can lead to bad science. So say Mark A. Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor best known for exposing the high levels of lead in the water in Flint, Mich., and Siddhartha Roy, a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech.

“If the practice of science should ever undermine the trust and symbiotic relationship with society that allowed both to flourish, our ability to solve critical problems facing humankind and civilization itself will be at risk,” they warn in a paper, “Science Is Broken,” in the digital publication Aeon. The Aeon article is abridged from a longer paper published in Environmental Engineering Science.

The pursuit of tenure influences almost the priorities and decisions of young faculty at research universities, write the authors. Recent changes in academia, including increased emphasis on quantitative performance metrics, “harsh competition” for federal funding, and implementation of “private business models” at public and private universities are producing undesirable outcomes and unintended consequences.

Some examples of unintended consequences:

Incentive: Researchers rewarded for increased number of publications.
Intended effect: Improve research productivity, provide a means of evaluating performance.
Actual effect: Avalanche of substandard, incremental papers, poor methods, and increase in false discovery rates.

Incentive: Researchers rewarded for increased number of citations.
Intended effect: Reward quality work that influences others.
Actual effect: Extended reference lists to inflate citations; reviewers’ request citation of their work via peer review.

Incentive: Researchers rewarded for increased grant funding.
Intended effect: Ensure that research programs are funded, promote growth, generate overhead.
Actual effect: Increased time writing proposals and less time gathering and thinking about data. Overselling positive results and downplay of negative results.

Incentive: Reduced teaching load for research-active faculty.
Intended effect: Necessary to pursue additional competitive grants.
Actual effect: Increased demand for untenured, adjunct faculty to teach classes.

The list goes on.

The traditional university culture relied more extensively upon the “old boy network” for hiring and advancing tenure-track professors. That system lent itself to criticism for bias against women and minorities. But Edwards and Roy say that the quantitative-metric approach has created a new set of abuses. “All these measures are subject to manipulation as per Goodhart’s law, which states, When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. The quantitative metrics can therefore be misleading and ultimately counterproductive to assessing scientific research.”

Edwards and Roy also find fault with the way federal research grants are handed out. “The grant environment,” they write, “is hypercompetitive, susceptible to reviewer biases, skewed towards funding agencies’ research agendas, and strongly dependent on prior success as measured by quantitative metrics. … These broad changes take valuable time and resources away from scientific discovery and translation, compelling researchers to spend inordinate amounts of time constantly chasing grant proposals and filling out increasing paperwork for grant compliance.”

Most concerning of all:

There is growing evidence that today’s research publications too frequently suffer from lack of replicability, rely on biased data-sets, apply low or sub-standard statistical methods, fail to guard against researcher biases, and overhype their findings.

Science is expected to be self-policing and self-correcting. But incentives induce stakeholders to “pretend misconduct does not happen.” There is no clear mechanism for reporting and investigating allegations of research misconduct.

The system “presents a real threat to the future of science,” they say. Academia is at risk of creating a “corrupt professional culture” akin to the doping scandal in professional cycling in which athletes felt they had to cheat to compete. “We can no longer afford to pretend that the problem of research misconduct does not exist.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The inability to replicate results from many scientific studies is widely acknowledged to be a real problem. Likewise, the risk is very real that the public could lose faith in science, especially when scientific research intersects with public policy. The idea that government agencies favor and fund research projects that bolster their policy agendas — admittedly, a minor point in the Edwards-Roy essay — is a phenomenon that should concern all Americans.

As research scientists, the authors are most concerned with how the system impacts upon the integrity of the scientific process and the advancement of tenure-track faculty. But their thoughts raise issues of interest to non-scientists who focus on cost and quality issues in higher education. The perverse incentives, along with the research university business model, have virtually severed top faculty from the task of teaching undergraduate students. Universities hire more subalterns — at extra cost –to handle the job of teaching. From the perspective of students and parents, superstar research faculty are superfluous overhead.

An important question left unanswered is the extent to which students and parents are funding this dysfunctional system through their tuition. How much tuition revenue goes to supporting this massively inefficient research edifice in which an increase share of faculty time is spent applying for grants? Perhaps none at all. But perhaps quite a lot. The public doesn’t know. It’s entirely possible that university administrations don’t either — higher-ed accounting could be more transparent. As students, parents and taxpayers, we should insist upon finding out.

(Hat tip: Reed Fawell)

Why HBCUs Like Charter Schools

Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund

Historically black colleges and universities (HCBUs) filled a higher-education void for African-Americans during decades of segregation. Today, once-lily white universities now compete aggressively for black students, and HBCUs have been losing market share. In 1977, 35% of black college graduates received bachelor’s degrees from HBCUs. By 2015 the percentage had declined to 14%.

Making the HBCUs’ predicament more difficult, they tend to educate lower-income students, while the most prestigious schools suck up more affluent, better-educated blacks. Stuck with a poorer alumni base, HBCUs find it harder to raise money for scholarships and campus improvements… which makes it a challenge to break out of the rut.

(Virginia has four HBCUs, two public and two private: Norfolk State University, Virginia State University, Hampton University and Virginia Union University.)

Nationally, only 35% of HBCU students graduate within six years, compared to 60% for all colleges. The root problem, says Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund which raises money for HBCUs, is that public schools are failing to prepare their graduates. In a Saturday interview in the Wall Street Journal, he said that in “economically fragile” communities, many low-income students graduate without basic literacy and need remedial classes.

The high school-to-college transition breeds frustration. “When you show up to my college, I’m in trouble and you’re in trouble,” Taylor says. “I can’t  get you through, and the feds are holding me accountable for graduation rates. And you’re frustrated because you feel like you were shafted for 12 years by the secondary school system — and you were.”

“Just because your finish a master’s degree,” says Taylor, “if what you learned in your curriculum was not rigorous enough or relevant, then Silicon Valley looks at you and says, ‘Well, that’s interesting that you have a degree, but it doesn’t work for us. You’re not prepared to do anything.'”

In contrast to black-advocacy groups such as the NAACP, Taylor has become an advocate of charter schools. Lower-income students from major charter networks such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), he notes, graduate from college at rates of three to five times as high as other students.

To ensure a stream of qualified applicants, nine or ten HCBUs have set up their own charter schools. Howard University in Washington, D.C., for instance, maintains a charter school with the idea of exposing students to Howard much earlier in their education life cycle.

Bacon’s bottom line: I have no idea if Virginia’s HBCUs have any interest in affiliating with their own charter schools, but the odds seem long that, if they are so inclined, they will be able to do so any time soon. Virginia’s charter law is so restrictive that only eight charter schools operate in the state, only two of which (both in the City of Richmond) are in black-majority school districts. Here in the Old Dominion, politics dictate that the interests of the public schools take precedence over those of students. Thus, this option for improving the lives of students — and the competitive posture of Virginia HBCUs — is effectively foreclosed.

How Strayer University Has Reinvented Itself

Students at a Strayer University graduation event.

In 2013 the leadership of the private, for-profit Strayer University knew it had a problem. Enrollment and revenue, which had peaked in 2010, had fallen by roughly 25%. Profit had tumbled by more than half. Something had to change.

There are many disadvantages to being a for-profit educational institution. For one, you have to pay taxes. (Strayer, a company that generated $441 million in revenue in fiscal 2016, paid $32 million in federal state, and municipal taxes.) Another is the necessity of propping up profit margins to please shareholders. Yet another is high percentage of poor and minority students who struggle with tuition (54% black and Hispanic, 41% receiving Pell grants for low-income recipients), and yet another, at least during the previous presidential administration, was the hostility of federal regulators.

But there is one big advantage to being a private for-profit: The ability to implement change quickly. The experience of the Herndon-based company, which operates campuses in Northern Virginia, the Richmond region and Hampton Roads, shows one path higher education institutions can follow to reinvent themselves in an era of backlash against the runaway cost of attending college.

The first thing Strayer did was slash overall tuition by 20%, according to a special advertising feature published in the Wall Street Journal today and the 2016 annual report, both of which I consulted for this blog post. The second thing it did was create the Graduation Fund to encourage students not to drop out but to complete their degrees. Every time a student completes three courses, Strayer awards them one tuition-free course toward the final 10 classes needed for a degree. For students who complete their studies, the program amounts to a 25% reduction in tuition.

Thanks largely to these two measures, plummeting enrollment leveled off, actually ticking back up 2,500, or about 6%. (Revenue inched up about 2%.)

Third, Strayer, which operated 80 brick-and-mortar locations, closed under-performing facilities and followed a shift in student preferences to an increased online presence — 85% by the fall of 2016.  Fourth, the company increased funding on academic services, investing its online curriculum to make it more “robust, engaging and interactive.” A new production facility, Strayer Studios, assembled academic instructional designers, producers, and graphic artists to build new online courses. Says the annual report:

The early results from our Strayer Studio courses are very encouraging. The two most important academic metrics we track, credit hours earned and student continuation rate, both increased in our Strayer Studio courses (by 5% and 6.5% respectively) versus a control group of the same online classes in our previous course format. While these improvements may seem small, when compounded over 40,000 students, four terms per year, they will create meaningful increases in both academic achievement for our students, and financial return for our shareholders.

And fifth, in the Foundations of Success program, Strayer used data collection and predictive analytics to identify the behavioral sources of academic success, such as determination and perseverance, and then developed coaching and tutoring techniques to help instill those attributes.

The willingness to tinker, experiment and fail is crucial to improving the university’s performance:

Developments like Strayer Studios and Foundations of Success courses are a result of our commitment to a culture of experimentation and innovation. In any given term we have dozens of pilots underway, testing not just what we teach, but how we teach. With over 40,000 students and a relatively narrow course catalog, we can experiment at a small scale, and when we see promising results, quickly implement the improvements on a large scale. We collect and use data voraciously, and are not shy about making changes.

As a for-profit enterprise that answers to shareholders rather than internal constituencies such as departments, faculty, staff, and alumni, Strayer has far more latitude to implement quick, decisive change than Virginia’s not-for-profit institutions. Strayer’s tight focus on career development also lets it avoid angst-inducing debates over striking the right balance between educating students for the workforce and educating them to become well-rounded citizens.

Let us then credit Strayer with the ability to change. How has all the restructuring worked out?

That’s less clear. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scoreboard, the average annual cost of attendance at Strayer’s Arlington campus — $25,802 — is still above the national average of $16,300. On the other hand, Strayer must absorb roughly $800 per student a year in taxes, it gets no state support — in 2015, the average state support per student for higher ed in Virginia exceeded $4,900 — and it cannot pay for capital improvements with tax-free municipal bonds.

The graduation rate within six years was only 19%, considerably lower than the 42% national average. (How Strayer compared to other schools with comparable demographics is not displayed by the College Scoreboard.) On the positive side, of those who do graduate, the average salary at $47,300 is considerably higher than the national average.

More Lazy Thinking about the Higher-Ed Affordability Crisis

Image credit: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

So, I was reading this op-ed piece in Inside NoVa by David S. Kerr, an instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University, in which he took the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly to task for slashing state support for higher education, increasing tuition levels, and rising student indebtedness. Then I got to the following paragraph:

States from New York to Nebraska have increased direct support to their university systems. State universities are a point of pride, particularly so out west, and states believe in supporting them–even in some of the reddest of red states. Virginia, however, as measured on a per student basis, has progressively cut state support for universities.

I wondered if that was an accurate portrayal. After Googling around, I found a recent report by the left-of-center Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which published the chart above. As it turns out, New York cut higher-ed spending per student between 2008 and 2017 only 2.0%, and Nebraska increased spending by 0.2%. But thirty other states have cut higher-ed spending more than Virginia. Kerr isn’t telling the whole story.

Then he goes on:

Also, costs have gone up. They have to. Buildings wear out and technology needs to be updated. All sorts of scientifically based curricula require new, expensive equipment. There are also various administrative requirements, mandated by the state and the federal government, that the schools have to pay for. At the same time, faculty and non-faculty employees need to be competitively paid.

Oh, gee, costs have gone up. What that settles it. Just throw up your arms because there’s nothing else  you can do. But someone forgot to tell Mitch Daniels. The former Indiana Governor took the helm at Purdue University in January 2013 vowing to make the public university more affordable.

After a 36-year string of increases, Purdue commenced a series of tuition freezes in 2013 that will last through the 2018-19 academic year. Daniels streamlined purchasing. He sold redundant property, reduced the cost of rental storage by half, and mended used office furniture. The university cut room and board costs by 5%. A partnership with Amazon.com slashed the cost of textbooks 31% on average. Thanks to these and other initiatives, Purdue student borrowing has dropped 37%.

As for those employees who “need to be competitively paid,” let me tell you how that works. Virginia colleges benchmark their faculty pay against that of institutions in other states and say, “We’ve got to raise pay to stay competitive.” This year the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia is recommending $84.3 million in extra state support (no guarantee it will get it) to keep faculty salaries competitive. Of course, higher-ed systems in other states are benchmarking as well, and they’re pushing for the same salary increases. And so the merry-go-round spins and spins.

Here in the Old Dominion, there’s still plenty of slack in the system. Universities can squeeze business process costs. They can cut administrative staff. They can curtail costly athletic programs. They can demand that faculty members teach more and publish less. They can harness online learning to provide classes at other institutions. They can utilize data analytics to spot struggling students and provide them the tutoring and mentoring they need to graduate on time.

Admittedly, cuts to state support in higher ed hasn’t made the job of Virginia colleges and universities any easier but the industry is rife with opportunity for cost cutting. The General Assembly bears a share of the blame for the higher-ed affordability crisis, but to pretend the problem starts and ends there is intellectually dishonest.

SCHEV Wants $350 Million More for Higher Ed

SCHEV proposal would fund more for faculty recruitment and retention, financial aid, and building maintenance, among other priorities.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) voted today to recommend a $352.4 million increase in state support for higher education in the next two years. Almost half the increase would be designated to faculty recruitment and retention, a top priority of Virginia’s higher-ed sector. Another $55 million would go to financial aid and student support programs.

To leaven the request, the council also recommended a tighter cap on student fee increases from 5% yearly to 3% yearly as well as a new mechanism to build up an institutional reserve fund.

“This is not a random request for more money,” said Marge Connelly, chair of SCHEV’s resources and planning committee. The budget is aligned with the strategic goals of the Virginia Plan for Higher Education, a blueprint for Virginia to attain the goal of best educated state in the nation by 2030.

The plan calls for extra funding of $112.9 million in fiscal 2018-19 and $186.2 million in fiscal 2020. Key spending categories include:

  • $84.3 million in General Fund money and $87.2 in non-general fund money (generated mostly by the institutions themselves) to promote faculty recruitment and retention.
  • $54.5 million for increased undergraduate and graduate financial aid.
  • $25.8 million for operation and maintenance of new facilities. As colleges and universities erect new buildings, SCHEV recommends setting aside 1% of the asset value for ongoing maintenance.
  • $21.6 million to comply with base adequacy guidelines for operating higher-ed institutions.
  • $16.2 million for the higher-ed trust fund relating to computers, lab equipment and research equipment.
  • $15.0 million for “student success” initiatives (to improve graduation rates).
  • $54.5 million in increased financial aid.

To address volatile state support, which is subject to cuts to offset budget shortfalls, some higher-ed officials had called for creation of something equivalent to the state’s “rainy day” fund that could be tapped to level spending. With the recommendations adopted today, SCHEV proposes allowing colleges and universities to create “institutional reserve funds” into which they could put unexpended appropriations. A SCHEV handout provides the justification:

By establishing an institutional reserve fund, an institution will be able to promote more efficient resource utilization, reduce sudden spikes in tuition, and foster more long-term planning, thereby increasing affordability for Virginia’s families.

SCHEV also urged the General Assembly to stick to its two-year budgets. In recent years, says the SCHEV handout, the “biennial budget exists in name only.”

A return to a two-year budget cycle could provide, at least minimally, for a more stable and predictable planning cycle for our public institutions. There is a clear and strong relationship between predictable state support and lower tuition increases. Affordable access to Virginia public higher education would be improved by returning to such a policy.

The only note of dissent during the budget discussions came from council members Minnis Ridenour and Stephen Moret. Ridenour said the measure would restrict the authority of boards of trustees. Moret suggested that the cap could lead to unintended consequences. Connelly defended the measure as needed to establish some “balance” against the council’s aggressive funding request.

Update: Michael Martz with the Richmond Times-Dispatch covered the SCHEV meeting as well, and his reporting contains detail that my posts did not.