Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

The High Cost and Social Inequality of Higher Ed in Virginia

Source: 2017 State of the Commonwealth Report

Everyone knows that the cost of attending college in Virginia has soared in recent years, even as family incomes have stagnated. A good way to visualize the divergence between cost and affordability is to calculate the number of hours it takes for a family earning the Virginia median hourly wage to pay for a year of average tuition & fees. That’s exactly what Paul M. McNabb and James V. Koch have done in their 2017 State of the Commonwealth Report. The results can be seen in the chart above. The number of working hours required to attend a four-year college has increased 82% since the 2001-02 academic year, while the number for a two-year college has increased 67%. (These numbers don’t include room, board, textbooks and other miscellaneous costs.)

Higher education is the most inflationary sector of the U.S. economy, with cost increases outpacing that of the inflation-prone housing and healthcare sectors. In their analysis of Virginia’s higher-education system McNabb and Koch explain the causes of runaway tuition increases and explore the impact on Virginians. (Note: Koch, a former president of Old Dominion University, serves on the board of Partners 4 Affordable Excellence @ EDU, a sponsor of this blog.)

The question naturally arises whether Virginia’s colleges and universities are pricing state residents out of higher education. Pointing to the declining head count in the state’s public institutions — nearly 6% between the 2011-12 school year and the 2016-17 year — the authors say yes. “Simply put, increasing numbers of students have decided that our public colleges have become too expensive compared to the benefits they generate in return.”

The sticker price of college tuition & fees is not the same as the actual price that many students pay. The federal government dispenses Pell grants to low-income students, the state operates its own financial-aid program, and higher-ed institutions themselves extend financial aid. Consequently, the net price paid by students often is considerably lower than the advertised price.

Colleges and universities raise much of the money for financial aid by raising the sticker price that students from affluent families pay. In effect, the authors write, “the pricing policies of most colleges and universities today … administer a collegiate version of a steeply progressive income tax, taking from the more wealthy and giving to the less wealthy by means of the net prices each group pays.”

Despite their redistributionist tuition policies, universities remain economically and socially stratified. While some of Virginia’s elite public universities do offer steep discounts to low-income students, high admission standards mean that, as a practical matter, only a small number make it in.

If the denizens of the bottom 60 percent of the income distribution can be fashioned as “common people,” then one might say that at least five Virginia public institutions (University of Virginia, William & Mary, Virginia Tech, University of Mary Washington, and Christopher Newport University) have relatively few common people in their undergraduate student bodies.

Source: 2017 State of the Commonwealth Report

McNabb and Koch raise the question of whether the General Assembly should financially support colleges and universities whose pricing policies imitate that of private universities.

Is it appropriate for the citizenry to subsidize institutions that increase social and economic inequality rather than provide the traditional ladders of opportunity that diminish differences?

Tough question. Virginia’s elite universities are unlikely to change their policies. Programs designed to increase the presence of lower-income students at the elite institutions might endanger their coveted Top 25 rankings if they eroded SAT score, ACT scores and on-time graduation rates.

Rare is the president of a top-ranked institution who wants to preside over a noticeable decline in his or her institution’s rankings. What member of an institution’s board of visitors will brag about the lower national ranking that came about because more Pell Grant recipients were admitted?

The authors point to the University of California system as an alternative model that Virginia might emulate. At the University of California at Berkeley, for example, 30% of undergraduates were Pell Grant recipients in 2015-16, while at UCLA the number was 35%.

But Virginia institutions are moving the opposite direction. At least a half-dozen Virginia public four-year institutions appear to have pursued policies that had the effect of restricting access of lower-income Virginians, say McNabb and Koch. “Is this a trend that the citizenry should support? We do not have the answer to this question, but it is easy to observe that what is perceived to be good for an individual institution’s national rankings may not be synonymous with what is good for Virginians.”

Bacon’s bottom line: That’s where the authors leave it. They don’t carry their thinking to its logical conclusion: that Virginia should cut off state funding and turn its elite public universities loose, letting them be free to be what they want to be — like, say, Duke or Dartmouth — and then redistribute state funds to institutions that appeal to a broader cross-section of the population.

I’m not sure how I stand on the issue, but I do see the logic.

What College Presidents Measure and Manage

Among the data sets tracked by University of Mary Washington President Troy Paino are metrics for college seniors who participate in high-impact experiences such as service learning and faculty research. Source: University of Mary Washington

One of my goals in covering Virginia’s higher education system is to understand how colleges and universities operate as business enterprises. What are the key variables that drive revenue, costs, the quality of the educational product, and the ability of institutions to carry out their missions? As the old business saying goes, “You manage what you measure.” If we as Virginia citizens and taxpayers want to understand how college/university presidents manage their enterprises, we need to know what they measure.

When I interviewed University of Mary Washington President Troy Traino two weeks ago for the profile I published yesterday, we chatted about the metrics of his business. Traino described himself a data-driven administrator. When he first came on board last year, he could not easily lay hands on all the numbers he thought was important, he says. But he’s got a handle on the situation now, and he maintains a dashboard of institutional effectiveness that measures UMW’s progress towards its goals.

The November 2017 dashboard, which he distributed to the UMW Board of Visitors, contains 33 charts encompassing topics such as:

  • Fall headcount
  • Admissions data (applications, acceptances, enrollments)
  • Average SAT scores and high school GPAs
  • In-state vs. out-of-state enrollments, on-campus vs. off-campus residency
  • Demographics such as gender, ethnicity, geography, Pell grants, 1st-generation status
  • Graduation rates, retention rates
  • Participation in high-impact practices such as faculty research, service learning, internships, study abroad
  • Satisfaction levels, alumni salaries
  • Student debt profiles, loan default rates
  • University debt levels, cash balances
  • State General Fund support for the institution, per student
  • Net tuition (revenue minus institutionally provided finance aid)
  • Instructional cost per FTE student and per credit hour
  • Endowment size, annual gifts and pledges

For a small liberal arts university, it seems like a pretty comprehensive list. However, I would note that there are a few things that the dashboard does not measure — faculty and staff headcount, faculty-to-student ratios, staff-to-student ratios, average class sizes, faculty and staff compensation, and comparisons with peer institutions, among other productivity metrics. (And that’s just off the top of my head.)

While Paino’s dashboard does not provide all the data that I would like to see, were I on UMW’s Board of Visitors, it encapsulates more crucial information in one document than I have found for any other Virginia university. That’s not to say that other presidents don’t have similar dashboards, just that I haven’t seen them. As I come across others, I will share them with Bacon’s Rebellion readers.

Regardless, Paino deserves credit (a) for collecting the data, and (b) for sharing it with the BoV and the public. I’d like to see that best practice implemented across Virginia’s higher-ed system.

No Paino, No Gaino

Troy Paino

The University of Mary Washington had endured ten tough years when it hired Troy Paino in 2016. The new president is working to restore its competitive stature among public Virginia colleges.

Between its founding in 1908 and 2006 almost a century later, the University of Mary Washington (UMW) had only six university presidents. In the decade following, it suffered extraordinary churn at the top. One president had a drinking problem, one had a falling out with the board, and one, a senior administrator, stepped in twice, first as an interim president and then as a permanent one until he retired. The turnover, which coincided with the 2007-2008 recession, did not work out well for the Fredericksburg-based liberal arts college.

While more students applied to UMW in the 2016-17 academic year than ever before, the university also accepted a higher percentage of applicants — a sign of waning selectivity — to offset the declining percentage of those who, once accepted, actually enrolled. Out-of-state enrollment plummeted to a fifth of the 2000 peak, costing the university almost $9 million a year in lucrative out-of-state tuition payments. Also discouraging: The graduation rate slipped three percentage points over the decade, even while it improved at most other state public universities. All these numbers trended negative, even as UMW borrowed heavily to renovate dormitories and install amenities needed to stay competitive with peer institutions such as James Madison University (JMU) and Christopher Newport University (CNU).

That was the situation facing Troy Paino when he gave up his job as president of Truman State University, a public, liberal arts institution in Missouri, to take the top spot at UMW. Sixteen months after taking the helm, early indicators suggest that the university has turned the corner. Selectivity metrics have ticked back up, and so has out-of-state enrollment. Perhaps most important, UMW has honed its niche among public Virginia institutions as the university that puts the “liberal” in liberal arts, cultivating a “culture of acceptance” and a commitment to service.

Paino invited me to his office to discuss a blog post I wrote last month examining the college admissions data. I had speculated that the low yield rate — the ratio of students accepted to the university who chose to enroll — was evidence that the university was running into price resistance from students and parents. To the contrary, Paino says, the tuition hikes of the previous decade had been moderate, and UMW, far from scraping against the upper limits of what it can charge in tuition, has considerable leeway to charge more should it wish — which it doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean the university doesn’t face big challenges.

“We’re in a very competitive market,” Paino says. When aspiring students apply to Mary Washington, they most frequently cross-apply to the University of Virginia, George Mason University, JMU, and CNU. He concedes that many regard UMW as a fallback school — they plan to attend only if they don’t get into the institution they really want. That’s why so many of those who get accepted don’t enroll. Paino wants to turn that around. “We want to be the institution where they want to go.”

Among its advantages, Mary Washington is a liberal arts institution, not a research university. It offers smaller classes taught by tenured faculty, not graduate-student teaching assistants. The university is “ahead of the pack,” says Paino, in helping students gain fluency in digital technologies. The Hurley Convergence Center, which stays open 24-7, is a place where students can do everything from record videos in a production studio and edit music in the multimedia lab to host events at a digital auditorium and display art in the Convergence Gallery.

Mary Washington also has a unique “culture of acceptance,” says Paino. By his estimates, UMW has twice the percentage of students with physical, learning and other types of disabilities as other universities. Students have a commitment to service, civic engagement and justice. Graduates go into the Peace Corps at one of the highest rates in the country. 

The balancing act in higher education is to invest in buildings, amenities, and student enrichment while remaining affordable. Keeping a lid on costs can be tough when college-bound students are heavily influenced by the quality of amenities such as food service, dormitory rooms, student commons and athletic facilities. UMW ran up its debt load earlier in the decade to upgrade its early-20th century structures as a “direct response” to the competitive challenge of Christopher Newport, which had built a handsome campus of new buildings.

Ironically, surveys indicate that students living in the old dormitories with the fewest creature comforts have the highest levels of satisfaction based on the sense of community they experience. But prospective students don’t know that. “When students come to visit, they go for the ‘wow’ experience,” Paino says. “It has become a bit of an arms race.”

The Mary Washington board has instituted three policies to avoid excess accumulation of debt. First, the university can spend no more than 10% of its operating budget on debt service. The debt-to-revenue ratio did increase from 4% in 2008-09 to 8% in 2015-16 to pay for upgrades to two residence halls, an athletic center, and the student union, but it eased somewhat in 2016-17. Second, debt must be less than 50% of the value of total university assets. And third, debt cannot exceed a $200 million cap.

Paino also is aiming to build up cash reserves to a level equivalent to 10% of revenues. Reserves have three components: a rainy day fund, a revenue-stabilization fund, and a fund for strategic investments. To meet those goals Mary Washington needs $12 million. When Paino arrived, cash reserves were $5.7 million. In the past year, he has built them up to $8.5 million.

The General Assembly is discussing a law that would allow public universities to take unexpended surpluses at the fiscal year end and apply them toward the institutions’ own revenue stabilization fund. Paino isn’t waiting for legislative action. “We have to be self sufficient. We can’t wait for the legislature to stabilize the funding for us.”

One key to getting Mary Washington back on the right track is bolstering its appeal to out-of-state students. In the 2016-17 school year, the university charged in-state students tuition, fees, room, and board of $21,508, while it charged out-of-state students $36,098. If the university could get back to its peak of 20% out-of-state enrollments, a gain of roughly 400 students, it would net an additional $9 million a year — a 7% boost to its budget.

A major challenge in an era of ever-escalating enrollments is accommodating the surge in lower-income Pell grant recipients. Paino characterizes the student body as predominantly middle class, which it is: the 18.5% level of Pell recipients is significantly lower than the state average. But over the past decade the number of Pell students increased at twice the rate of Virginia’s public state schools overall. Low-income students require extra student aid over and above what the federal government provides. If they don’t get it, they are more likely to drop out for financial reasons. Over the past decade, UMW has boosted institutional aid by $3.1 million, or 164%, without benefit of a large endowment. Despite the increase in financial support, the drop-out rate increased slightly, even as Virginia’s other public institutions were able to bring the rate down, although, Paino points out, UMW did a better job this year in retaining members of the freshman class — a positive sign for the future.

Despite the difficulties, Paino remains upbeat. A big believer in metrics, he distributes a dashboard of institutional effectiveness to board members. UMW’s acceptance rate is slightly down (meaning UMA is slightly more selective), and the percentage of accepted students who enrolled was slightly higher — equivalent to James Madison. The SAT scores of entering freshmen are higher, averaging 1173, and so are high school GPAs. Compared to its competitors, its 71% six-year graduation rate is “pretty darn good” and its student loan default rate is “pretty impressive.”

It takes time to change direction, and Paino credits his predecessors for building positive momentum. Now that he has been at the university long enough to get to know it well, he says, he thinks UMW is heading “in a very positive direction.”

If there’s one thing Paino would ask from the state — aside from more money, of course — it’s a tweak to Mary Washington’s governance system. Visitors typically serve for four years. The issues relating to running a university are so complex and so different, he says, it takes two or three years before most board members know enough to contribute fully.”

“Every year, we have to educate these new board members,” he says. “I would argue for a little longer term.”

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.