Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

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 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.

Sabato to Colleges: Be Nicer to Republicans

Larry Sabato

If Virginia’s colleges and universities want to make inroads with the General Assembly, they might consider being more friendly to Republicans on campus, renowned University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato told the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) today.

The United States is as polarized today as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, said Sabato, arguably the best known political scientist in the country, who had been invited to speak on any topic he chose. The difference is that in the ’60s and ’70s, the nation was polarized over issues such as Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Today the country is divided by partisan loyalty. In the past the political parties allowed for a diversity of viewpoints on issues such as gun control. Today, he said, “You can’t find a Democrat who isn’t in favor of gun control and a Republican who is.”

Pew Research Center research has found that the divisiveness is driven largely by negative emotions, Sabato said. “People hate the other party more than they like their own.” And hardly anyone is immune to the phenomenon. Scratch an independent, and the odds are he or she votes for either Democrats or Republicans ninety percent of the time.

Traditionally, higher education enjoyed the consensus support of Democrats and Republicans. Everyone bought into the goal of making college affordable and accessible. Then colleges got sucked into the culture wars. College employees tend to vote for and donate to Democrats in much larger numbers. Some college campuses became hostile to conservative speakers. In today’s polarized climate said Sabato, “Democrats support what they think is the prevailing ideology in higher ed and Republicans oppose what they think is the prevailing ideology.”

Republicans feel increasingly alienated from the higher ed community, he said. They feel universities are a “bulwark” of the Democratic Party. “You can’t have liberal after liberal after liberal as graduation speaker and be perceived as fair to both sides.” Universities should continue “speaking truth to power,” he said. But if they want a friendlier response in state legislatures, they should “reach out to the party that is not as represented.”

It doesn’t take much to reach out to Republican legislators, he said. Encourage more diverse perspectives on campus. Invite them to speak. He even invited Senator Ted Cruz to address his class, he said. “We’re not Berkeley.”

Time for Another Round of Higher-Ed Restructuring?

W. Taylor Reveley IV addressing SCHEV.

Longwood’s Taylor Reveley IV says Virginia’s elite universities should consider generating more revenue by admitting more out-of-state students.

The Commonwealth of Virginia faces chronic budget pressures — the growth of Medicaid, pension liabilities, and more — that will make it difficult for the General Assembly to bolster state support for higher education. W. Taylor Reveley IV, president of Longwood University, delivered those cautionary words to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) this morning shortly before it endorsed a committee recommendation to increase higher-ed spending by $350 million over the next two-year budget.

Perhaps it’s time for the state to consider another “restructuring” of the higher-ed system, Reveley suggested: Give leading universities more freedom to admit out-of-state students paying higher tuition, reduce state support for those institutions, and let the savings flow back to the other colleges and universities.

A legislative deal in 2005 gave Virginia universities more autonomy over procurement, IT, human resources, and other business processes in exchange for more accountability for achieving state goals. The legislation created three levels of autonomy, depending upon each college or university’s institutional capacity, Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3. Only four institutions — the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, Virginia Tech, and Virginia Commonwealth University — have attained Tier 3 status with the most autonomy.

Reveley’s restructuring idea would create a “Tier 4” exempt from the state requirement that no institution enroll more than 25% of out-of-state students in their undergraduate student body. The percentage of out-of-state students at Virginia’s elite universities is a political football between the institutions and politicians. Universities like out-of-state students because they pay, on average, 163% of the tuition of in-state students, yielding more revenue. But General Assembly members are sensitive to constituent complaint of their children being displaced by out-of-state students.

Percentages based upon 206-2017 academic year numbers. (Click for more legible image.)

Admitting more out-of-state students could yield a “nine-figure” sum to reinvest in the higher-ed system, Reveley said. Rather than redistribute that sum between the other colleges and universities, the state could consider dedicating the funds an “investment pool” to advance a strategic aim such as advancing university research & development or (mentioned in a side chat with Bacon’s Rebellion) improving the graduation rate. Not only would reducing the number of college drop-outs prevent personal tragedies for students who spend thousands of dollars and drop out without receiving a degree or certification that would allow them to earn more and pay off the debt, it would enable colleges to award more degrees without the need to expand capacity at great public expense.

Most college presidents invited to address SCHEV council meetings use the opportunity to plug their institutions. Reveley took the opportunity instead to talk about the issue he says is “front and center” in higher education today — cost. Even adjusted for inflation, college is far more expensive today than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. “That same trend cannot repeat itself over the next two generations.”

Reveley drove home two other key points:

Personnel reform. Pore through university budgets, and you’ll find that 75% to 80% of the cost is tied to personnel, Reveley said. To some degree, he attributes higher-ed inflation to the phenomenon of “cost disease,” an affliction of labor-intensive economic sectors requiring lots of human interaction such as dentistry, teaching or the arts. It takes just as many people to play Beethoven’s 9th Symphony today as it did 100 years ago, he said. “I think that’s a lot of what’s driving the cost issue in higher ed.”

But it’s not the only thing. Virginia’s public higher-ed system operates according to civil service-like rules that were put into place to give government employees protections against wholesale replacement by new governors. Pork barrel politics is not an issue for colleges and universities. But the protections make it difficult to fire, reward and motivate employees, Reveley said. “It’s tough to exhort the troops when you can’t reward the ones who have worked their hearts out.”

Over and above the civil service rules, colleges and universities have a “dozen different flavors of employee.” These classifications creates conflict and hinder the ability to move people within the organization. While Reveley did not identify specific reforms, he said he would like to see a personnel system that resembled large not-for-profit organizations in the private sector.

Career prep. Reveley has been an outspoken voice in Virginia defending the virtue of a liberal arts education over career-prep degrees. Colleges play a critical role in preserving democracy and building civil society by teaching students how to engage with ideas and participate in organizations, he said. A liberal arts education “is not just a luxury good,” he told SCHEV. If career-prep is the goal, there may be less expensive ways to achieve the goal than sending students to four-year colleges.

Reveley is not the only person in Virginia to suggest another round of higher-ed restructuring. SCHEV staff had suggested the idea of increasing out-of-state enrollment to raise revenue and redirect state support to other institutions. Minnis Ridenour, a former Virginia Tech COO and a SCHEV board member, told the council he has discussed the idea with senior people at Tier 3 institutions, and that they are thinking it over. But Reveley is the first university president (to my knowledge) to publicly endorse the idea. He also is the first to suggest dedicating the freed-up revenue to a specific strategic goal rather than parceling it out among all the colleges and universities.

If higher-ed institutions want to run with the idea, they had better move quickly, said SCHEV chairman Heywood Fralin. There is little time to work out the details of any enabling legislation before the General Assembly session starts in January.

Now That’s Something to Brag About!

I’m just back from the meeting of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), and I had to share this tongue-in-cheek observation by W. Taylor Reveley IV, president of Longwood University, which he made during a presentation to the council. I couldn’t transcribe fast enough to provide exact quotes, but it went something like this:

In Virginia, we’re blessed with the greatest system of higher education in the country. The United States is widely acknowledged to have the best system of higher ed in the world. And there is no known extra-terrestrial life. Ergo, Virginia has the best system of higher education in the universe!

I don’t know if such a claim is backed by the data, but I like the way Reveley thinks.

More Money to Help Lower-Income Virginians Go to College?

Percent of students with financial need receiving a Virginia Student Financial Assistance Program award. (Click for more legible image.)

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) has set a goal of making Virginia the best educated state in the country, but getting there could be an uphill climb. While the in-migration of educated people has boosted Virginia to a 6th-place rank nationally in educational attainment, the attainment of high school grads is only 11th. Increasingly, the state’s college-bound population consists of minority-race households with lower income who face greater academic and financial challenges attending college.

To address the problem, SCHEV staff recommends significant spending boosts in the next biennial budget to help recruit and retain “first generation” students who are the first in their family to attend college. Highlights include:

  • $2.5 million annually to encourage lower-income high schoolers to attend college;
  • $10.0 million over two  years for colleges and universities to provide student support services and experiential learning programs; and
  • $45.5 million over two years to boost the Virginia Student Financial Assistance program for lower-income students.

The Council will consider these and other budget proposals in its October board meeting tomorrow. The entire two-year package of higher-ed recommendations enumerated by SCHEV staff total $240 million in General Fund spending and $126 million in nongeneral funds. If approved, the recommendations will be forwarded to the McAuliffe administration and to legislators working on the fiscal 2018-2020 budget. Higher-ed priorities will face stiff competition from Medicaid, K-12 education, transportation, and public safety, among other priorities.

Postsecondary access resources. A July 2017 SCHEV-commissioned study, “Landscape of Postsecondary Access Resources in Virginia,” found that 30% of Virginia school districts need additional resources to counsel middle and high school students about college careers. The need is particularly acute among lower-income students.

The staff presentation by Finance Policy Director Dan Hix did not specify what the $2.5 million in “postsecondary-preparatory planning and capacity-building efforts” would be spent on. But the July report suggests “SAT/ACT test preparation, the financial aid application process and/or financial literacy, and opportunities for student exposure to postsecondary institutions, especially those beyond the local area.”

Graduation rate. Another priority is bolstering the graduation rate. Schools have experimented with an array of programs to improve student retention, from one-stop shopping for tutoring, mentoring, and guidance counseling; family orientation programs to get parents more engaged; living-learning dormitories that house students with similar interests; and the use of predictive analytics to spot dropout risks.

The $10 million for such programs, states the Hix presentation, should be tied to graduation rates and other success metrics.

Financial aid. The federal government provides extensive financial aid to lower-income students in the form of Pell grants and loans. Public universities also run scholarship programs funded by donations and tuition. (Virginia higher-ed institutions are using approximately 5% of in-state tuition revenue for financial aid for in-state students.)

The Virginia Student Financial Assistance Program (VSFAP) is a third source of financial assistance. In 2016 Governor Terry McAuliffe and the General Assembly put an extra $24.1 million into VSFAP, the largest increase in the program’s history.

Yet from fiscal 2013 to 2016, states the Hix presentation, combined enrollment across all public Virginia institutions dropped by 11,200 students (mostly at community colleges). Students demonstrating financial need declined by 13,000.
The loss was concentrated among students in the $0-to-$50,000 income group, which declined by nearly 17,000 (14.8%).

The VSAP program must balance two criteria: helping more students and making larger awards. Virginia universities have been awarding money to more students, but the awards have not kept up with students’ needs. The results, says Hix, are unfortunate. He cites a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) report suggesting that a $1,000 boost to financial aid is associated with a three- to five-percent point increase in college attendance. Presumably the converse is true: a $1,000 cut in financial aid is associated with a three- to five-percent drop in attendance. The practice of spreading the gravy might be contributing to a higher dropout rate. SCHEV’s solution: Put more funding into the program.

Bacon’s bottom line: Hix’s analysis makes perfect sense if you accept the proposition that more lower-income students need to attend college. The aspiration certainly makes sense to colleges, which need more lower-income students paying tuition to maintain their revenue streams. It make sense to the business community, which wants a skilled and educated workforce without bearing the expense of training or apprenticeships. And it makes sense to social justice advocates who think it unjust that some Americans are stuck in lower-paying jobs because of a lack of educational opportunity. But the aspiration may not make sense to lower-income Americans themselves.

A four-year college education can be a ticket to the middle class, or even riches for a fortunate few. But attending college is a lottery. If you are a first-generation college student, there is a good chance that you will struggle academically, have a hard time paying the bills even with financial aid, and drop out saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. There is a good chance that you’ll fall behind in your loans, your credit will be wrecked, and your life will be worse than if you never went to college. How many millions of Americans have had that experience? How many students in the same social milieu have heard the cautionary tales? And how much will it cost to overcome their resistance?

Plumbing the Mysteries of College Application Data

One of my goals at Bacon’s Rebellion is to divine how colleges and universities function as business enterprises. What are the key drivers of revenues and costs? How well are they performing? Is their position in the marketplace improving or losing ground? This is not easy, as higher-ed institutions do not present their data in ways that lend it to outside analysis.

In pursuit of a keener understanding, I have been dabbling in a State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) database that tracks the number of applications, admissions, and enrollments for Virginia’s public universities.

These are critical metrics for assessing an institution’s health. It is a positive sign when the number of students applying for admission increases, a bad sign when applications drop. It is a sign of exclusivity — the ability to pick and choose students — when an institution accepts a low percentage of applicants and rejects a high percentage. Conversely, it is a sign of desperation when an institution accepts all comers. Finally, it is useful to track how students who, once admitted, decide to enroll and how many choose to attend a different institution.

The chart above shows admission data for Virginia’s flagship institution, the University of Virginia. As can be readily seen, the number of applications has surged — up 105% over the eleven years between the 2005-06 school year (when SCHEV data begins) and the 2016-17 year. Part of that increase reflects the fact that students are applying to more colleges than in the past. But in UVa’s case, the deluge in applications also reflect an increasing interest in the school. For all the controversies UVa has endured in recent years, it outperformed other public colleges by a wide margin. The average increase in applications for Virginia’s other fourteen public four-year institutions was 29%.

With skyrocketing applications, UVa could afford to be selective. In a sign of increasing selectivity, the university’s acceptance rate declined from 37.7% to 30.4%. That performance was all the more impressive compared to other Virginia institutions. Every other four-year college and university became less selective over the same 11-year period, some more so than others, as can be seen in the charts below. (A downward sloping lines indicates increasing selectivity.)

Speaking generally, Virginia’s most selective institutions tended to hold their own over the decade when measured by this indicator, while the least selective institutions lost ground, as seen by the upward sloping lines.

That brings us to a third metric, the “yield rate,” or the percentage of students granted admission who decide to enroll. Generally speaking, a higher yield rate indicates that an institution is in greater demand. A lower yield rate suggests that more students are saying, thanks, but no thanks.

As seen in the charts below, yields declined almost universally through the eleven-year period — VMI was the sole institution to buck the downward trend. (I deleted Norfolk State from this series because it was an outlier that rendered meaningless results.) The negative yield-rate trend likely reflects an increasing proclivity of students to apply to more colleges and nail down more acceptances in order to increase their choices, so declining percentages are not necessarily a reason for alarm. That said, the decline was downright precipitous for some institutions. Particularly alarming: Only one in five students accepted to the University of Mary Washington and Virginia State University wound up enrolling.

Admission, acceptance and yield trend-lines are especially worth watching for institutions that have increased tuition aggressively. There is widespread evidence that families are showing increased resistance to the high cost of attendance, particularly among institutions that lack a prestigious reputation. Some institutions have priced themselves out of the market.

For example, Mary Washington University could be running into price resistance.

Mary Wash’s yield rate is low — slightly fewer than 20% of accepted students choose to enroll. Even though applications have increased in recent years, the university has had to accept a higher percentage of applicants in order to maintain its enrollment goal. That means Mary Wash has been dipping deeper into the applicant pool and showing less selectivity. As long as it can increase the number of applications — through more aggressive marketing, perhaps — the Fredericksburg university can maintain its enrollment numbers. But the trends are worrisome.

The SCHEV data allows us to drill a little deeper, viewing the trend lines for both in-state and out-of-state students. Applications and enrollment have held up for in-state students, but enrollment has stumbled badly for out-of-state. That’s critical because out-of-staters pay a $14,600 tuition premium to attend (not including adjustments for financial aid). Out-of-state enrollment, which stood at 323 in 2005-06, fell by two-thirds to 102 in 2016-17. While Mary Wash accepted 86.7% of out-of-state applicants, a mere 9.9% of those accepted chose to enroll — down from 25% eleven years before. Given the out-of-state tuition premium, the out-of-state enrollment decline represents a loss of $3.2 million in tuition revenue.

That revelation sent me running to the most recent Mary Wash annual report: In fiscal 2015, the university lost $39.5 million in its net position (equivalent to net equity), and in 2016 saw a rebound of only $4.1 million. With $168.6 million in noncurrent liabilities (long-term debt) and $358 million in assets, the school is, in business parlance, fairly highly leveraged. Hopefully, more recent enrollment and financial trends have been more positive. But if I served on the Board of Visitors, I’d be asking a lot of questions.

University board members are unlikely to ever see this data from their college and university presidents. They would be well advised to acquaint themselves with it on their own initiative.

Faculty Unrest at Virginia Tech

Provost Thanassis Rikakis

A growing number of Virginia Tech faculty members are unhappy with Provost Thanassis Rikakis, the university’s chief academic officer. A recent faculty senate resolution declared that promotion and tenure policies addressed in a Rikakis memo violated tenets of the Faculty Handbook. Some professors have openly discussed holding a no-confidence vote.

The Roanoke Times has obtained copies of the Rikakis memo and a faculty critique of the provost that illuminate the inner workings of university administration and politics. Writes the newspaper:

[One] memo addresses problems with faculty perceptions, calling for bottom up implementation of changes and improving communication between administrators and faculty members. The memo lays out target dates for change and action plans for improving promotion and tenure, new initiatives and general communication at the university.

Another memo from the provost intends to “clarify the promotion and tenure process and to specify outcomes that are possible throughout that process.” … One part of the memo says faculty members who receive a “negative decision” during the review process can be reappointed to a different position elsewhere at Tech.

In a near-unanimous vote, the 40-person Faculty Senate rejected the Rikakis memo’s description of the tenure system.

By way of background Virginia Tech has articulated plans to create world-class “destination areas,” interdisciplinary teams that will make Tech “an international destination for talent, partnerships, and transformative knowledge.” The university has identified five so far: adaptive brain and behavior; data and decisions; global systems science; integrated security; and intelligent infrastructure for human-centered communities.

Writes the Roanoke Times:

Tech administrators have said that faculty buy-in is a critical piece to making initiatives such as destination areas a success.

“All Thanassis and I can do … is to create a scaffold or a framework to simplify the conversation,” Tech President Timothy Sands said in an interview for a Roanoke Times profile of Rikakis that was published in January. “In the end, it has to be the students, faculty, staff and partners to make it work.”

Bacon’s bottom line: There are at least two ways to frame this issue. One is that Virginia Tech’s faculty is righteously resisting encroachments upon its autonomy by an administration that seeks to accumulate power and authority. Another is that Virginia Tech’s myopic faculty is selfishly defending its institutional perks against an administration trying build Virginia Tech into a world-class educational institution. I imagine that a good case could be made for both views.

Innovation in the Business of Higher Education

Virginia universities shared business best practices today at Virginia Commonwealth University with the hope of finding ways to shave costs and improve the student experience. 

George Mason University expects to save $3 million over the life of a five-year contract by outsourcing its printing operations to an outside vendor, defaulting to black-and-white print over color, and printing on both sides of the paper.

Universities make huge investments in parking lots and parking decks like this one at the University of Virginia. Today’s students are less car-centric than previous generations, and parking permit revenue has been falling. UVa has turned to metered parking to provide more convenience and recoup revenue.

The University of Virginia expects to generate $300,000 extra in parking revenue this year by shifting from the traditional arrangement, in which students purchase year-long parking passes for a space in a particular lot, to a system of metered parking that provides more flexibility as to where and when students park.

Virginia Commonwealth University doesn’t expect to save money from its Beyond Orientation program, an online orientation program for student’s parents and family members, but the university does hope to increase parental engagement in a low-cost way. When parents feel more comfortable navigating the university bureaucracy, they can provide more support for their kids, which bolsters the goal of graduating more students on time.

These were just three among the dozens of stories about higher-ed innovation highlighted at the “Partnering for Progress” event held today at VCU’s Siegel Center. Some stories reflect nothing more glamorous than the adoption of best practices that are common elsewhere. But some innovations are truly ground-breaking and have the potential to transform how higher-ed institutions function.

The event, itself a first-of-a-kind, featured an hour’s worth of speechifying and exhortations, plus two hours for schmoozing, visiting booths, listening to presentations, and swapping business cards. “Partnering for Progress” was backed by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council’s Growth4VA initiative, a public relations campaign driving home the message that Virginia’s colleges and universities make critical contributions to economic growth and prosperity. A recurring Growth4VA theme is that while state government needs to do more to support its public system of education, Virginia’s colleges and universities need to be more creative about controlling costs, reining in tuition increases, and helping students graduate with less debt.

There wasn’t time to visit every booth, but I had conversations with enough presenters to be persuaded that some very imaginative thinking is taking place in Virginia’s colleges and universities. It’s an open question whether these bright ideas get the funding and administrative support needed to transform the cost-encrusted higher-ed system. While some of the initiatives seem impressive, the thought occurred to me, why isn’t every institution adopting these changes? And what’s taking them so long?

Still, I came away convinced that there may be hope for Virginia’s higher education system. While higher-ed’s lobbyists and advocates may, for purposes of public consumption, be putting blaming runaway tuition on cutbacks in state support, administrators acknowledge the institutions themselves also bear some responsibility for holding down costs. Here follow some of the more promising programs I encountered in my perambulations through the Siegel Center.

Energy efficiency. Gains in energy efficiency had leveled off for several years at the College of William & Mary when Farley Hunter came on board to focus on utility management. Having worked in private-sector property management, he quickly spotted numerous opportunities to cut the university’s $7 million to $8 million in energy bills. W&M cobbled together a $140,000 revolving fund to invest in projects with at least a three-year payback, mostly in areas such as HVAC, ventilation and lighting. That’s a modest sum for a 200-building campus, concedes Hunter, but if he can demonstrate success, he expects the university to invest more.

Faculty productivity. University professors persevere through years-long Ph.D. programs to gain mastery of their subject matter. But unlike school teachers, they receive little instruction on how to teach. The University of Virginia Center for Teaching Excellence created the Course Design Institute to help professors organize and design better courses. Participants engage in a short but intensive exercise that begins with the question, “What do I want my students to know 3-5 years after the course is over?” The program uses proprietary software to build a syllabus and create “knowledge checks” that align teaching objectives with tests and assessments. About 500 UVa faculty members have gone through the program. Said program director Michael Palmer: “We created a revolution.”

Research productivity. University of Virginia researchers apply for roughly $1 billion in research grants in every year, and succeed in nailing down about $300 million worth. Only two years ago, however, the paper-based system for administering the research applications was extravagantly inefficient. It wasted space on literally hundreds of filing cabinets. Files were frequently misplaced (at an average estimated cost of $125 per file). The university even maintained a dedicated car and driver to carry papers from office to office around the grounds for needed signatures.

Ironically, UVa’s inefficiency turned out to be a blessing, said Vonda Durr, senior director of electronic research administration. Other institutions purchased multi-million-dollar software solutions to deal with the same paperwork issues, but many have them are dissatisfied and ready to scrap them. UVa learned from their mistakes and drew upon the university’s in-house IT staff to design a custom solution, starting with a portal for principal investigators, which makes contracts, account balances and other critical information accessible through one online location. The experience was so positive that the Office of Sponsored Programs added new capabilities such as electronic signatures, workflow tracking systems, and data visualization tools. Among other tangible benefits, the university has freed up space by getting rid of the filing cabinets, driven down printing costs, and saved an estimated $5 million in faculty and staff time.

Student retention. One third of the students entering Virginia Commonwealth University are considered “first generation” students — that is, they are the first members of the family to attend college. They are disproportionately poor and minority, and they have a harder time graduating from college. The graduation rate for first-time students is 78%, considerably lower than the 85% rate for all students, and GPAs tend to be lower. A high priority for VCU is improving the graduate rate for first-timers. The university’s You First program assembles a variety of orientation programs, faculty-led sessions, networking events, and support resources to ease the transition of first-timers into college life.

Virginia State University has a program with a similar purpose — helping students complete their college degree — that concentrates support services in a single location where students can access a wide variety of services. Students learn study skills and time management, get tutoring, receive counseling on which courses to take, and gain access to other support services. Every student is provided a mentor.

Radford University is adopting first-year living-learning communities organized around common interests such as the environment, the maker movement, biology, research, and the arts. Students living in the same residence halls take shared classes and engage in other activities together, building a sense of community and belonging. Participants have measurably higher retention rates and higher GPAs. Radford also uses data analytics to predict and improve student attrition. Remarkably, university ID swipes in dormitories and the fitness center is one of three factors with greatest predictive value. The data allows staff to reach out to students identified as being at risk of not returning to the university.

Virginia’s system of higher-education has the second highest six-year graduation rate in the country, second only to Utah. The payoff for students is huge — fewer drop out with big student debts they can’t repay. And the payoff is big for Virginia as well. When more students graduate, Virginia inches closer to its 20-year goal of becoming the best educated state in the country.

Even Progressives Acknowledge the Failure of Indiscriminate Student Loans

I’ve been making the case for a couple of years now that if you’re looking for a real example of social injustice, take a look at the United States higher education system. For years liberals and progressives argued that everyone deserves a college education, that government should help anyone with a high school degree attend college, and that poor students could borrow huge sums to pay for ever-escalating tuition and fees without ill consequence. Now even the social justice warriors are waking up to the social disaster they have wrought.

Readers of Bacon’s Rebellion know full well that the policy of indiscriminately handing out student loans to everyone has created a new class of debt slaves. Not all high school graduates are academically prepared for college-level work. Not everyone who undertakes to earn a college degree is financially able to complete their degrees, even with financial assistance. As a result, literally millions of Americans have taken on college debt without earning the degree or other workforce credential that would allow them to obtain a job that pays enough to carry that debt.

The members of the new debtor class are disproportionately poor, and they are disproportionately African-American. This is a real social injustice, not an imagined one, and it has arisen from the blind pursuit of good intentions.

Finally, progressives are waking up. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, data from a U.S. Department of Education study provides a “first-ever look at long-term outcomes for student loan borrowers, including results by race and ethnicity.”

The data show that 12 years after entering college, the typical African American student who started in the 2003-04 school year and took on debt for their undergraduate education owed more on their federal student loans than they originally borrowed. This holds true even for students who finished a bachelor’s degree at a public institution. One reason they might not be paying down their loans? Nearly half of African American borrowers defaulted, including 75 percent of those who dropped out of for-profit colleges.

Among the detailed findings:

  • African-Americans borrow more on average than their peers.
  • The typical African-American made no progress over 12 years in paying down his or her loan. African American borrowers who started college in 1995-96 owed 101% of their loans a dozen years later, compared to 60% for whites and 72% for Hispanics.
  • A bachelor’s degree does not insulate African-American borrowers from bad outcomes. College drop-outs are not the only ones who default; college grads do, too.
  • Nearly half of all African-Americans defaulted on their student loans. One reason, suggests the analysis, is that African-Americans take on higher debt on average.
  • Seventy-five percent of African-American dropouts from for-profit colleges defaulted. (No word on how this compares to the percentage of African-American dropouts from public colleges or Historically Black Colleges and Universities.)

A conservative/libertarian reaction to this data is that the system hands out student loans too indiscriminately. Many Americans — of whatever race — would be better off learning a trade in a two-year college than attending a four-year college. Some would be better off not going to college at all and learning on the job. Student loans, like any other kind of loan, should be granted based upon a person’s ability to repay the loan.

The problem is that granting educational loans on the basis of a student’s ability to repay — based upon key predictors like academic preparedness and household resources — would “discriminate” against the poor and, because African-Americans are disproportionately poor, against African-Americans. In today’s political climate, that’s a non-starter.

The Center for American Progress expresses an admirable sentiment when it suggests that policymakers should strive to create a world where African American students don’t start their careers with large loan debts they struggle to repay. But the CAP’s answer is to admit more poor African-Americans into better institutions with more resources to help them succeed. How? By “fixing” admissions practices and funding systems “so that African American students do not end up disproportionately underrepresented at institutions with the greatest resources to educate them.” 

Translation: Get higher-ed institutions to admit more African-Americans in the blind hope that somehow they will do better regardless of whether they are academically prepared. Great idea. That’ll work out well.

For Irish, Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Koreans and other Americans, the typical family’s climb from poverty into affluence took place over generations. Parents sacrificed so their children could rise a step higher on the educational and socioeconomic ladder. Today’s social justice warriors are impatient. They want African-Americans to vault from Mosby Court to the University of Virginia and a job in the hedge-fund industry in a single generation. A handful of individuals are so extraordinary that they can succeed. Most aren’t. Instead of reaching for achievable goals for self improvement, millions are pursuing unrealistic dreams and winding up in debt bondage as a result.