Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

Autonomy and Accountability

Under the 2005 Restructuring Act, Virginia universities got more autonomy in exchange for more accountability. Today, they still have autonomy but there’s less accountability.

This is the first of four articles exploring higher-education accountability in Virginia since enactment of the 2005 “Restructuring Higher Education Financial and Administrative Services Act.”

The year 2005 was a watershed for higher education policy in Virginia. Lawmakers struck a grand bargain that gave Virginia’s public colleges and universities greater autonomy from state regulations in exchange for more accountability in meeting state goals.

Virginia’s elite universities — University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and the College of William & Mary — had been lobbying for “charter” status that would liberate them from suffocating state controls and reaffirm their right to raise tuition without interference from politicians. At the same time, Governor Mark Warner was articulating what he wanted from the state’s higher education system: expanded enrollment, access for minorities and the poor, and greater progress in obtaining external R&D funding, among other priorities.

Lobbyists and lawmakers struck a compromise: All of Virginia’s colleges and universities would get more day-to-day operational freedom, with the elite three gaining the greatest latitude, and Warner would get more accountability for progress toward state goals. The 2005 “Restructured Higher Education Financial and Administrative Operations Act,” or “2005 Restructuring Act” for short, spelled out the new covenant between the state and its universities.

“Warner worked really hard to get a consensus around it,” recalls Pat Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, who was involved in articulating the accountability goals. “It had a pretty good shot at being successful.”

Mirroring a tug of war between states and public universities taking place in every state, the 2005 Restructuring Act garnered widespread attention in the world of higher ed. Some observers speculated that the law would provide a model for other states.

“The Virginia case represents one of the most coherent and thoughtful efforts to deregulate and decentralize while working toward an explicit state agenda that we have seen,” wrote Lara K. Couturier, a colleague of Callan’s, in a 2006 analysis.

But the jury was still out on whether the impact of the legislation would be positive or negative. Would legislators respect the spirit of the legislation and remain hands-off on tuition? Would universities prompt a political response by continuing to raise tuition aggressively? Would the benefits of autonomy outweigh the burden of compiling more reports and statistics? How effectively would the state hold colleges accountable to Warner’s goals, often referred to as the “state ask”?

In 2008, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) published a two-year review of the Act, with special attention to the management agreements that UVa, Tech and W&M negotiated with the state. “It appears that the management agreements have generally worked in a satisfactory manner to date,” the report concluded. Streamlined procedures didn’t address every gripe university administrators had, but the new arrangements were a clear improvement over the old.

It was too early at that time to gauge the impact of restructuring on students, but signs seemed positive. The three universities covered by management agreements had committed to increase access for underrepresented student populations and to facilitate transfers by community-college students, JLARC said. “The management agreements should also make college more affordable for most students,” the authors added hopefully.

In 2011, however, higher education policy took a sharp turn with the passage of “The Virginia Higher Education Act of 2011” during the McDonnell administration. Also referred to as the “Top Jobs” act, this legislation set a new goal of awarding of 100,000 additional degrees by 2025. The shift in priorities entailed the creation of some new accountability measures and the abandonment of others.

By 2017, the grand bargain of 2005 was showing signs of breaking down. State support for higher ed was eroding, putting pressure on Virginia’s public universities to shift costs to students. Runaway tuition was making higher education increasingly unaffordable, not just for the poor but the middle class. In line with national trends, Virginia students were taking on ever heavier debt. Although a college degree was perceived as an admission ticket into the middle class, the high cost of attendance required ever greater financial sacrifices. Responding to constituent complaints, lawmakers submitted a slew of proposals to assert more state control over college tuition and governance. Higher-ed’s friends in the legislature bottled up those bills in committee, but the educational establishment was on notice — the natives were getting restless.

Since JLARC issued its two-year review in 2008, no one has taken a comprehensive look at the 2005 Restructuring Act. The commission did conduct several narrow-bore studies in 2014 that illuminated drivers of higher costs such as administrative bloat, academic productivity, spending on athletics, and cuts in state support for higher education. But no one has thought to question the premises of the 2005 Restructuring Act.

Perhaps it is time that someone asked if the law has lived up to expectation. Have colleges and universities benefited from their freedom from state controls? Have Virginia’s higher-ed institutions delivered the “state ask”?

In articles to follow, I will argue that the Act delivered on some of its promises but contributed to a bigger, over-arching problem: an affordability crisis for the middle class. Among the conclusions:

  • Accountability has been narrowed to a few metrics. Of the 12 “state ask” goals, some are impossible to quantify, and some are no longer of interest to legislators. Today, the state tracks mainly enrollment and the number of degrees awarded, along with compliance with administrative and financial standards.
  • Falling short of performance goals incurs no sanction. The State Council for Higher Education in Virginia works quietly with institutions behind the scenes to get them back on track.
  • Struggling to define “affordability,” the state did not adopt an affordability benchmark or metric until 2011, and then the Top Jobs act suspended it. Universities suffer no rebuke for increasing tuition aggressively.
  • The state does not monitor the cost drivers of tuition. Other than two JLARC reports published in 2014, the state has conducted no formal analysis on the relationship between increasing higher-ed costs and increasing tuition.

The state goals enshrined in the 2005 legislation and the metrics that flowed from them ignore cost drivers such as athletic subsidies, faculty productivity, administrative costs, building maintenance, obsolete programs, and the “Club Ed” effect on dorms, cafeterias and other student amenities.

As the old business adage goes, “You manage what you measure.” The overseers of Virginia’s higher-ed system didn’t establish cost-related metrics, so the institutions didn’t make a priority of managing them. As institutions sought to achieve other goals against a backdrop of shrinking state financial support, raising tuition & fees was the path of least resistance. The result: more students are borrowing, and they are borrowing more.

In Part II, I will discuss the benefits of the 2005 Restructuring Act to Virginia’s colleges and universities.

Fralin Assumes SCHEV Leadership

F. Heywood Fralin. Photo credit: Roanoke Times

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) elected W. Heywood Fralin, a prominent Roanoke businessman and former rector of the University of Virginia, as chairman Wednesday.

Fralin replaces G. Gilmer Minor III, much beloved by SCHEV staff and fellow council members, who after two terms was ineligible for reappointment to the board. Minor, who also retired recently as chairman of medical distribution giant Owens & Minor, Inc., had been instrumental in persuading the McDonnell administration not to axe the once-troubled Council and then acted to restore its credibility with lawmakers.

“I look forward to working with my fellow Council members in leading Virginia’s system of higher education to even higher levels of excellence,” Fralin said. “Virginia is fortunate to have so many superb colleges, universities and career-training schools — they truly are our crown jewels. It is an honor to work with them for the good of the Commonwealth.”

G. Gilmer Minor. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The consummate Virginia gentleman, the 72-year-old Minor was known for his self-effacing leadership style and his penchant for praising the contributions and accomplishments of others. When introducing staff and other speakers at SCHEV meetings, he would always find something positive to say — often expostulating at some length. At his final board meeting in May, Fralin and SCHEV Director Peter Blake lauded him for his eight-year contribution.

Minor joined SCHEV in 2009, at a low point in its history. The legislature had established the Council as the state entity responsible for coordinating Virginia’s highly decentralized system of higher education. The council had seen significant turnover in its senior staff, Minor told Bacon’s Rebellion, and relations were strained with the colleges and universities it oversaw. Minor, who had just come finished a term as chairman of the Virginia Military Institute, said VMI almost regarded SCHEV as the “enemy.”

When Bob McDonnell came into office in 2010 on a platform of cutting state government, he gave serious consideration to eliminating SCHEV. Minor made it his mission to save the council and rebuild its credibility. Thanks in large part to Minor’s efforts, McDonnell spared the council. Minor spent considerable time with legislators, explaining SCHEV’s role and advocating the interests of higher education. SCHEV has functioned without major controversy ever since.

Fralin will bring a different style to SCHEV — from my few months of covering the council, he seems more blunt-spoken than Minor — but I expect the 62-year-old chairman of the Medical Facilities of America, a provider of skilled nursing and rehabilitation services — to play a similar role as advocate for Virginia’s higher-ed system.

In addition to serving as rector, Fralin has given generously to UVa, most notably a 40-piece art collection, which includes works by John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt and Robert Henri. The donation was the largest single art gift in the University’s history.

Thinking on a Higher Plane about Higher Education

Stephen Moret, CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP), brought a wealth of experience in corporate recruitment and workforce training when he moved to Virginia from Louisiana. But there’s another aspect of Virginia’s economic development chief that has gained little notice here in the Old Dominion. Last year he earned a doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania.

The Ed.D. dissertation that Moret completed last year, “Attainment, Alignment, and Economic Opportunity in America: Linkages Between Higher Education and the Labor Market,” examines the connection between higher education and economic development in the United States, often challenging the conventional wisdom in the process. His findings are worth considering here in Virginia.

Two propositions are widely and uncritically accepted in the Old Dominion: (1) a highly educated workforce is good for economic development, and (2) therefore, we should invest more in higher education. Accordingly, the Virginia Plan for Higher Education sets the goal of making Virginia the best educated state in the U.S. by 2030. The plan articulates the rationale:

An educated population and well-trained workforce increase economic competitiveness, improve the lives of individuals and support greater community engagement. The best-educated state means that Virginia supports higher education at all levels. This spectrum includes workforce credentials such as industry certifications, state licensures, apprenticeships and certificates, as well as traditional degrees.

Moret does not contest the link between an educated workforce and economic development. But the relationship is a complicated one, he says. His dissertation suggests that it is possible to invest too much in higher ed, or invest in the wrong places. Among other issues, Moret discusses the problem of “malemployment,” a form of underemployment in which four-year degree holders work in jobs requiring less education. He worries that many college graduates lack the critical thinking skills needed to succeed in the workplace. And he notes that the benefits from investing in higher education are highly uneven among the states.

Malemployment. Malemployment is a widespread problem in the U.S. Approximately one-quarter to one-third of all college graduates and roughly 45% of recent college graduates are working in jobs that do not require college-level skills. Altogether, about 10 million FTFY (full-year, full-time) employees with a bachelor’s degree are malemployed nationally, working as retail sales clerks, truck drivers, food service managers, cashiers and other occupations.

“Proponents of higher college degree attainment often emphasize the higher earnings and lower unemployment rates enjoyed by college graduates in comparison to those of individuals whose formal education ended with a high school diploma,” writes Moret. “The reality is that significant numbers of college graduates do not secure employment in occupations that require and/or make meaningful use of college-level skills. They often experience much lower earnings premiums as well as lower job satisfaction than their peers.”

The phenomenon varies widely by type of degree. Science and engineering degrees tend to have the lowest rate of malemployment, arts & humanities among the highest rates.

“The sheer size of the malemployed population as well as the nature of the occupations that many malemployed individuals hold suggest this is a widespread and serious issue in the U.S.,” says Moret, calling into question the simplistic idea that a college education is a sure pathway to well-compensated employment.

Critical thinking. Most full-time faculty members at colleges and universities consider development of critical thinking skills (99%) and effective writing skills (93%) to be essential or very important goals of an undergraduate education. Employers say they are looking for the same skills. All too often, degree earners are not gaining mastery of them. At a few institutions, students lose proficiency at college.

Quoting from an academic source, Moret says:

Many seniors graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers. Many cannot reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, nontechnical problems, even though faculties rank critical thinking as the primary goal of a college education. Few undergraduates receiving a degree are able to speak or read a foreign language. Most have never taken a course in quantitative reasoning.

Many studies of the connection between education and economic growth have focused on years of schooling or educational attainment as the key predictor, says Moret. But recent research has shown that the real predictor is cognitive skills, which may or may not be obtained in college. (I would bet that there is a large overlap between these cognitive under-achievers and college grads experiencing malemployment.)

Migration and educational attainment. Highly educated, recent college graduates are the most likely of any demographic group to move from one state to another. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree are twice as likely to complete an interstate move as those with a high school degree; Ph.D.s are three times as likely. Likewise, people in their 20s and early 30s are more likely to move than any other age group.

Some states export college-level talent to other states, in effect losing the fiscal investment they made in their students, while other states are talent importers, reaping the benefit of others’ investments. The Great Lakes states are the biggest exporters, followed by the Mid-Atlantic, New England and the Plains states. For every 100 bachelor’s degrees conferred in Michigan, the state has lost 22.

Says Moret:

When college degree production substantially exceeds demand in a state, college graduates tend to complete interstate moves in order to secure better employment outcomes. Collectively, these findings suggest that the economic payoff of a college degree is much greater in some states than others, and state leaders must be careful to ensure that their college degree attainment initiatives are not misaligned with the labor market demands of their economies.

Traditionally, Virginia has been a talent “importing” state, which has contributed to the Washington metropolitan area, including Northern Virginia, having the best educated workforce of any metro in the country. The Old Dominion has benefited from other states’ investment in higher education. However, in recent years, coinciding with sequestration and Virginia’s economic slowdown, Virginia has shifted to a talent-exporting state (although the number of people leaving the state is relatively small). Despite this transition, the state forges ahead with a strategic higher-ed plan calling for awarding more degrees, certifications and apprenticeships. Will supply exceed demand? Will we end up exporting talent? Are we investing excessively in higher ed — or perhaps in the wrong places, producing too many B.A. degrees and too few certifications for skills that are demonstrably in demand?

Virginia’s public policy leaders are not asking such questions — or, if they are, their deliberations are not reflected in the news media. But the issues Moret raises in his dissertation are profoundly important. With an economy in the doldrums and a state budget facing chronic stress, Virginians must question all of their hoary assumptions in order to make better use of the state’s limited resources.

As a member of the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, Moret is in a position to ask the questions that no one else in authority is asking. Let us hope he makes the most of the opportunity.

Worse than Pell!

Cranky (aka John Butcher) has been nosing around the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) database and come up with some interesting numbers comparing the graduation rate for students receiving different types of financial aid.

As seen in the chart above, the students graduating within four, five and six years at the lowest rate are those receiving assistance from the Virginia Commonwealth Award. As Cranky describes it bluntly, VCA is “subsidizing failure” more than any other source of financial aid. That’s quite an accomplishment considering that even the federal Pell program for low-income students out-performed VCA.

What do we know about the Virginia Commonwealth Award? There’s not much available online — mainly this fact sheet published by SCHEV:

The purpose of the Virginia Commonwealth Award is to assist undergraduate students with financial need and graduate students to pay part of their college costs. The funds are appropriated directly to each state supported institution. Funds may be used for need-based grants to Virginia resident undergraduates or for grants or assistantships to graduate students (both in-state and out-of-state). The law requires that the awards to undergraduates be proportional to need so that the students with the greatest need receive the largest awards.

Not that I looked at that hard, but I couldn’t find any document detailing how much money the VCA hands out each year or, more importantly, what the default rate is on loans. If the graduation rate of VCA students is lower than that of federal loans, and federal loans are experiencing significant defaults, it is logical to assume that the VCA is experiencing major defaults as well. Who is managing this program? Is anyone tracking the numbers?

Read John’s thoughts over at Cranky’s Blog. (By the way, I liked John’s headline so much that I stole it for my own post.)

UVa Philanthropy Now Equals State Support

What would T.J. say?

The University of Virginia could reach a milestone this year: collecting more money from private donations than from the state.

At a Board of Visitors meeting earlier this month, Melody Bianchetto, UVa’s vice president for finance, told board members that a steady stream of philanthropic income is expected to provide more than $150 million in operating funds over the next years, reports Derek Quizon with the Daily Progress. That compares to the $150.5 million appropriated from the state General Fund to the University of Virginia this year.

Quizon asks an interesting question: If the trend of increasing reliance upon private over public support continues, what are the implications for how UVa is governed? Will the General Assembly lose leverage?

“You’re more responsive to the goals of the people who give you your revenue,” says Dustin Weeden, who analyzes higher-ed issues for the National Conference for State Legislators. “There are a whole host of concerns private donors have that are different from the goals of the state.”

Private donors tend to favor things like new facilities and research, which could benefit the state in other ways, but not necessarily in the way public universities traditionally benefit the state: with affordable undergraduate degrees for in-state students. “Public institutions can’t completely shrug it off,” Weeden said. “But I think they push for more autonomy and control over their own operations.”

Weatherford said UVa and William & Mary are experimenting with a new model — new for public universities in Virginia at any rate — that may allow them to keep costs low in the long run. They have the freedom to try this experiment because the state allows it, says Greg Weatherford, spokesman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. “One of the best things about being in Virginia is they have the flexibility to try that,” he said.

Quizon also quotes me in the article, addressing the question of whether UVa might aim to become a private institution. Even if the shift to private philanthropy continues, I opined, I didn’t see the university seeking to transform itself into a private institution. “That impulse does exist — people would probably love to get rid of that General Assembly oversight and cut the strings — but at the end of the day, they want to be a state institution.”

Bacon’s bottom line: No question, passing the 50/50 milestone of philanthropic versus public funding has symbolic value, reminding everyone of the state’s diminished role in supporting the university. But that $150 million is still critical to the institution’s functioning. It could not be replaced by philanthropy in the short run, and it could not be easily replaced by raising tuition. The balance of power in the relationship between the university and the state doesn’t change. Unless UVa uses more of those philanthropic dollars to stabilize tuition, as opposed to building a grander, more prestigious institution of higher learning, they will rely upon state funding and legislators will continue to agitate against tuition hikes.

No, Reduced State Subsidies Do Not Drive Tuition Increases

One of the great debates in higher-education policy is the relationship between cuts in state subsidies for colleges and universities and increases in tuition. Over the past two decades states (including Virginia) have curtailed state support, and college tuitions have soared. The higher-ed lobby argues that the one is the direct and proximate cause of the other: Institutions raise tuition to compensate for state cuts.

The national debate has played out here in Virginia. Last year, House of Delegates fiscal analyst Tony Maggio estimated that between 1996 and 2015, for every dollar the state cut in college subsidies, public Virginia institutions raised tuition by two dollars — implying that half the tuition increases could be attributed to the cuts. In March, Heywood Fralin, a member of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) contended that using a 2001 starting date for the analysis would have shown a dollar-for-dollar correlation between reductions in state support and higher tuition — in effect blaming the cuts for 100% of tuition increases. (See “Deciphering Higher Ed Statistics.”)

Against the backdrop of the same debate playing out nationally, Preston Cooper, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, has published research that reaches a remarkable conclusion: There is almost no correlation between changes in state funding and changes in tuition. State budget cuts account for maybe 5% of the tuition increases.

Proponents of the “state disinvestment” hypothesis blaming state cuts for tuition hikes are correct that smaller state subsidies among the 50 states has coincided with aggressive tuition increases nationally. Between 2004 and 2015, state subsidies per student fell by $1,319, or 15%, while average tuition increased $3,488, or 56%. But there is little causal relationship between the two trends, Cooper argues.

To the statistically untutored, those numbers might appear to suggest that roughly 38% of the tuition increase can be explained by state cuts. But such a superficial reading fails to explain why tuition rises both during periods of increasing subsidies and declining subsidies.

In his paper, “Pennies on the Dollar: The Surprisingly Weak Relationship between State Subsidies and College Tuition,” Cooper delves deeper than broad aggregate numbers. He examines year-to-year changes for hundreds of public universities across the country.

Citing the work of economist Howard Bowen, Cooper suggests that colleges do not seek to minimize costs like corporations do. They are not profit-maximizing institutions. (They are, I would suggest, prestige-maximizing institutions, which drives them to spend money on projects to enhance their rankings.) Colleges and universities, he contends, seek to maximize all available revenue streams and then benchmark their costs to the revenue they are able to raise. “An institution finds a way to use each dollar it accesses.”

Institutions charge all the tuition they can all the time. Whether direct subsidies go up or down is irrelevant. Subsidies and tuition are independent of one another; the pass-through rate is zero.

Cooper’s data indicate that Virginia’s public four-year colleges and universities actually have a slightly negative pass-through rate — 6.1%. “Negative pass-through,” he explains, “does not mean that institutions respond to subsidy cuts by reducing tuition outright but that institutions reduce tuition relative to its (sic) underlying trend when subsidies fall.”

Cooper theorizes that universities, reflecting their core mission of teaching, do try to avoid slashing instructional spending. Cutbacks fall most heavily on research and administrative costs.

Bowen … predicts that institutions will raise more revenue than they need to provide education and then channel the excess funds into superfluous expenditures that may be tangential to the core educational mission. When revenue streams contract, this low-value spending will be the first to go.

A corollary of Bowen’s theory, suggests Cooper, is that increasing state support for higher education will lead to trivial reductions in tuition. Colleges and universities will seek to maximize tuition revenue in any case. But more generous state subsidies will fund increased spending. Rather than increase direct support to institutions, he argues, states should consider abolishing subsidies and using the money to fund grant aid to students.

Bacon’s bottom line: I find Cooper’s theory intriguing, and I think it provides a useful frame of reference for examining trends in state subsidies and college tuition in Virginia. But I would like to see how the numbers play out before accepting his findings. In particular, his theory suggests that institutional spending would increase or decrease (with a year delay) in response to changes in state support. While the task might be tedious, it should be easy enough to look up the numbers. If I have time, I will do so and report back to readers.

How Well Do Virginia Colleges Teach Critical Thinking?

Source: Council for Aid to Education

The most important skill U.S. colleges and universities purport to teach is critical thinking. The higher-ed industry doesn’t have any tests analogous to Virginia’s Standards of Learning exams (SOLs) by which to measure the proficiency of students in this core aptitude, but it does have the voluntary Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). Dozens of universities around the country administer the test to freshmen and seniors to determine how far they have progressed in their abilities to manipulate information and reason analytically.

While the CLAs show that most college students do progress over their four years of study, they also demonstrate that results vary widely by institution. At a handful of institutions, students actually lose ground. The CLAs also show that a significant number of college seniors — 14% in the 2015-16 year — fell short of a “basic” mastery of critical thinking. Only half achieved a level higher than basic.

More students than ever are attending college in the U.S. and paying more than ever for the privilege, but it is less than clear how much they are learning. In an era of rampant grade inflation, grades are not a reliable indicator. Corporations carp that many graduates are unable to think analytically, communicate well or solve complex problems.

“At most schools in this country, students basically spend four years in college, and they don’t necessarily become better thinkers and problem solvers,” says Josipa Roksa, a University of Virginia sociology professor and co-author of “Academically Adrift,” told the Wall Street Journal. “Employers are going to hire the best they can get, and if we don’t have that, then what is at stake in the long run is our ability to compete.”

College students rely heavily upon an institution’s reputation when selecting where to attend. Reputations are heavily dependent upon the prestige and fame of faculty members, the size of research budgets, athletic prowess, the size of endowments and other factors entirely unrelated to educational value added. Likewise, boards of visitors have no objective criteria by which to judge how effectively colleges are executing their core mission of teaching.

Only two of Virginia’s public four-year colleges participated in the 2015-16 test: Radford University and Christopher Newport University (CNU). (Three private colleges did: Bridgewater, Lynchburg and Randolph-Macon.) Maybe other Virginia institutions should do so as well.

Here’s the rationale articulated by the Radford Faculty Senate Executive Council:

Students today can no longer rely solely on mastery of discipline-based information. They need to be able to analyze and evaluate information, solve problems, and communicate effectively. Beyond just accumulating facts, they must be able to access, structure, and use information. …

Radford University currently does not have a valid, reliable, widely accepted measure of critical learning outcomes that can be used to track our success in helping students improve on those outcomes over time or compare our students’ learning success with that of students at similar universities. Adopting the CLA+ would enable us to accomplish both those goals. Using such a measure should allow us to better demonstrate the value we add to students while they are at RU, more effectively test alternative core curriculum pedagogy and models, provide external constituencies a measure of student performance they view as valid and reliable, and reduce the amount of time faculty spend on assessment. It would also be invaluable in meeting the accreditation requirements for SACS and other accrediting bodies.

Radford has the right idea. Faculty members want to know if the institution is doing a good job or not. They want data to guide them as they shape the curriculum.

CNU learned from administering the test that it was doing something right. According to the May 2015 board minutes, CNU seniors scored in the 85th percentile. (It is not clear from the minutes whether that reflects the number who scored proficient or the improvement in the test scores between freshmen and juniors.)

Other institutions may be scared to know the results. Perhaps they don’t want board members asking too many questions — an understandable if regrettable attitude.

Or perhaps they think their students are so friggin’ smart that they don’t need to be tested. But how would they know unless they administer the test? (I remember some University of Virginia frat boys who had probably regressed during their four years in college. Excessive alcohol and cannabis consumption can do that.)

The cost is nominal — some $6,600 for 100 students plus $25 per additional student. If Virginia’s public institutions don’t voluntarily participate, then perhaps the Virginia legislature can find a way to encourage them.

The Diminishing Returns on a College Degree

Fall headcounts have plateaued among Virginia public higher-ed institutions. Data source: State Council for Higher Education in Virginia.

After peaking in 2011 at 20.6 million, college enrollments in the United States have declined every year since, falling to 19 million in 2016. While the fall-off has been most pronounced in community colleges and for-profit institutions, many traditional four-year institutions have been affected as well.

Why, ask Richard Vedder and Justin Strehle, is this happening? Because the cost of college attendance is rising while the financial benefits of a degree are falling, they argue in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Between 2000 and 2016, the tuition-and-fees component of the Consumer Price Index rose 74.5%, adjusted for overall inflation. But the earnings advantage of a college degree is no longer growing like it once did. Writer Vedder and Strehle:

The average annual earnings differential between high school and four-year college graduates rose sharply, to $32,900 in 2000 (expressed in 2015 dollars) from $19,776 in 1975 — only to fall to $29,867 by 2015. In the late 20th century rising higher-education costs were offset by the increasing financial benefits associated with a bachelor’s degree. Since 2000 those benefits have declined, while costs have continued to rise.

An indicator of this shifting return on investment is the high rate of underemployment — 40%, according to Vedder and Strehle — of recent college graduates. When college grads are taking jobs as Uber drivers and baristas, you know something is wrong.

Another factor undermining the advantage of a college degree: A degree no long provides the reliable signaling to the labor market that it once did. Traditionally, a sheepskin used to tell employers that a candidate possessed a certain level of intelligence, ambition and diligence. But when one third or more of adult Americans graduate from college, “being a college graduate no longer necessarily denotes exceptional vocational promise,” the authors write.

Bacon’s bottom line: There is a deeply rooted idea in American culture that everyone should have a chance to go to college. Embedded in that idea is the assumption that everyone can benefit from a college education. In an ideal world that might be true. But we live in the world we live in, and the K-12 educational pipeline is badly broken. High schools are spewing out graduates who are totally unprepared for college-level work. But many colleges, desperate to maintain their enrollments and support the vast infrastructure of buildings, departments, faculty, graduate students and administrators, are taking on these students anyway, even if they benefit little from the college experience. Here in Virginia, thousands of students drop out every year after loading up with college debt. Even for those who do graduate, thanks to relaxed academic standards, a college degree in many cases ain’t worth what it used to be.

Since the Top Jobs Act of 2011, in which it was the declared policy of Virginia to increase the number of degrees and certificates awarded by Virginia’s public colleges and universities by 100,000, enrollments have plateaued after years of increases. Virginia students are encountering the same hard choices as students nationally: Given what Virginia institutions are charging, is the cost of a degree really worth it?

50% of Americans Would Make Different Education Decisions

More than half of Americans (51%) would change a major education decision if they had it to do over again, finds a new report by the Strada Educational Network in conjunction withe Gallup polling organization: 36% would choose a different major, 28% would choose a different institution, and 12% would pursue a different degree.

Graduates of vocational, trade or technical programs are more positive about their education decisions that those with an associate or bachelor’s degree. STEM graduates at all education levels were most satisfied with their decisions. Respondents who earned Associate degrees and B.A. degrees in liberal arts were more likely to express regret than those with business, STEM or public service degrees.

“In the United States, students often make the decision whether or not to pursue postsecondary education without being fully informed of the available educational opportunities or which are required to pursue their chosen career path,” says the report. “These decisions, whether students pursued postsecondary education or not, have long-standing implications for their careers, their finances and their well-being.” Continues the report:

Researchers widely agree that many of the current measures available to consumers to help determine the value of their education fall short, and they are not widely used. There is, for example, no national database that shows how much graduates of different colleges earn by major or how satisfied they are with their experience. When economic challenges are coupled with a lack of reliable information, it creates a situation ripe for education outcomes to fall short of consumer expectations, leading many consumers to have second thoughts about the choices they made.

Bacon’s bottom line: Looks to me like a massive mis-allocation of time (years of study) and financial resources. That might have been forgivable when higher education was the province of the elite. Now that 60% or more of the population pursues an advanced degree — often borrowing money to do so — the decision-making process needs to be more rational and better informed.

Elite Universities and Socioeconomic Diversity


Over on Cranky’s Blog, it appears that John Butcher, like me, has little better to do this Memorial Day weekend than to ruminate upon the implications of a recent New York Times op-ed piece written by columnist David Leonhardt. Lamenting the paucity of smart kids from poor schools admitted to the nation’s elite universities, Leonhardt attributes much of the decline to cuts in state support, which forces universities to raise tuition, which in turn makes makes it harder for poor kids to attend. (I previously addressed Leonhardt’s column here.)

Leonhardt believes that the decline of poor kids in elite schools represents a closing off of the nation’s meritocracy. But an alternative way of looking at the picture is that elite schools admit the smartest kids, and that the smartest kids (as defined by SAT scores, which predicts academic success in a higher-education context) tend to be found among poor households in significantly smaller numbers. There is a social problem, but it isn’t elite university admission policies. The question isn’t why elite universities are failing poor kids. It’s why K-12 systems are failing them.

In his op-ed, Leonhardt presents a chart that shows the percentage of Pell Grant students at 20 elite public universities. The University of of Virginia and Virginia Tech are second and third lowest.

Cranky responds to these data points this way: “Those low numbers are not a problem unless one thinks that these schools should dilute their brands by admitting less qualified students.”

That is a tremendously important point. Read Cranky’s post to follow his logic and view the data supporting it. In the end, he concludes that a much more interesting question than Leonhardt’s is why poor kids graduate from college at much lower rates. And that brings us to the dismal quality of academic preparation offered by many high schools, as evidence by an article in today’s Washington Post profiling a Washington, D.C., public high school, Ballou High School.

Teacher turnover in schools serving lower-income populations — 25% at Ballou this year — is a perennial scourge. At Ballou, departing teachers cited frustration with large classes of students who were far behind academically, lacked the foundation to be successful, and often disrupted class. School administrators provided little backup to enforce order. As full-time teachers dropped out, temps and substitutes filled in. Instruction became disjointed and incomplete. Even motivated students suffered.

“Students simply roam the halls because they know that there is no one present in their assigned classroom to provide them with an education,” wrote a music teacher. “Many of them have simply lost hope.”

The Post described the situation of 11th-grader Dwight Harris:

 Harris said that since his teacher left, he hasn’t learned much in algebra. Substitutes have told him and his classmates to fill out worksheets, he said, which they answer by Googling the problems.

Many times, Harris said, he stays in the room for 10 minutes, long enough for the sub to mark him present. “I have no idea what my grade is right now,” he said, “but I think I’ll pass the class.”

Admittedly, Ballou is an extreme example of dysfunction, severe even by inner city standards. But problems like social promotion, disruptive students, disorderly classrooms, demoralized teachers, and excessive reliance upon temporary and substitute teachers are endemic. Students may be natively intelligent but it is a stretch to think that someone like Dwight Harris, no matter how bright and motivated, can graduate from such an environment as academically prepared as his peers at functional high schools.

Virginia high schools are graduating a higher percentage of students than ever. Consequently, a higher percentage of young Virginians, especially from poor households, are looking at college as the next step in their career progression. But are they academically prepared for college-level work? I’m persuaded that many are not.

To circle back to Cranky’s point, UVa could compromise its admission standards in order to appeal to the egalitarian sensitivities of David Leonhardt. But would that be a good idea?

At present, lower-income kids at the University of Virginia graduate at almost the same rate as rich kids, as can be seen in the graph at the top of the post. (The gap is wider at Virginia Tech, comparable to that of Virginia four-year institutions as a whole.) In other words, poor kids who gain admission to UVa deserve to be there. They are not displacing other students who could benefit more from a UVa education.

What if UVa began relaxing standards to admit more poor students? Would the poor students wind up better off than if they had attended a different university for which they were academically prepared? Or would they drop out at higher percentages after taking out big loans and saddling themselves with debt? Even from the perspective of the poor kids — to say nothing of kids who would be displaced — it could well be counter-productive to ask UVa or other elite universities to compromise their standards.

The problems of poor kids can be traced back to high school, and from high school back to middle and elementary schools, and from there to poverty-ridden environments at home. That’s the real issue, not a lack of socioeconomic diversity at elite institutions.