Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

Virginia Tech OK’s Intelligent Infrastructure Initiative

Bringing intelligent infrastructure to Virginia

Bringing intelligent infrastructure to Virginia

The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors voted Monday to approve a $78 million plan to make the university a leader in “intelligent infrastructure.” The term encompasses everything from self-driving cars and drones to smart construction and energy systems — areas, in the words of President Tim Sands, that are “related to energy systems for the cities of the future and the way that people move in and around those cities.”

“We set … aggressive philanthropy and industry targets and were able to meet them quickly,” Sands said. “It was ready. … We already had industry and philanthropy champing at the bit.”

Intelligent Infrastructure is a fascinating field of endeavor, and one that is well suited to Virginia Tech’s engineering strengths. Further, the concept, while hardly original to Tech, has yet to become a trendy buzzword that every university in America is chasing, so Tech may have an opportunity to establish a leadership position in the field.

As an economic development initiative that stimulates the growth of R&D and, potentially, the spin-off of new technologies and business enterprises, intelligent infrastructure is an exciting idea. There is a double benefit for Virginia if the initiative helps state and local governments in the Old Dominion devise solutions to chronic problems such as traffic congestion and aging, ill-maintained infrastructure. Strategically, the initiative makes sense.

In other action, the board also approved a 3.5% hike for in-state tuition & fees in the next academic year, bringing the full-year cost to $13,329. That increase exceeds the 2% increase in Virginia’s median household income (2015-2016 numbers) by a hefty margin, but Tech remains a relative bargain compared to other Virginia’s other public, four-year institutions.

Here’s my question: Where does the $75 million come from to finance this significant new initiative? Tech officials say the money comes from corporate sponsorships, philanthropy and other sources but not from tuition & fees. In political terms, Tech is claiming that the project is not being financed on the backs of students and their families.

Here’s what the Roanoke Times has to say:

The … funding will come from non-general funds, which comes from revenue streams other than tuition and mandatory fees.

University officials previously vowed to put about $75 million into the intelligent infrastructure destination area. Millions in private dollars were in the plans since last year, and now Tech has $25 million. The donors include John Lawson, president and CEO of W.M. Jordan Co., and a former board of visitors rector; the charitable foundation controlled by the Hitt family of HITT Contracting Inc., in Washington, D.C.; and two other donors who Virginia Tech declined to name.

A briefing report included in the board briefing materials provides a few more details (my bold face):

At this time, the university is requesting to move forward with a $6 million planning authorization for the $69.5 million of outstanding capital projects and capital lease components. The planning authorization will cover establishing a scope, schedule, delivery method, and complete design documents for each capital component. As with all self-supporting projects, the university has developed a financing plan to provide assurance regarding the financial feasibility of this planning project. The funding plan calls for the use of private gifts, overhead funds, revenues derived from the Dining Services auxiliary, and future external support.

If Tech can make the Smart Infrastructure initiative essentially self-funding, then it would seem to be a win-win all around and a model for Virginia’s other research universities.

Two sets of questions, though. First, how much of the project will be paid through “overhead funds?” What overhead are we talking about? Who’s paying for that overhead now? Does that amount to an indirect subsidy?

Second, how certain are we that “future external support” will materialize, and how contingent is the Intelligent Infrastructure initiative upon obtaining that support? Is there any chance that Tech will spent $70 million+ on the project and the external support might not appear? If so, who gets left holding the bag? In other words, who bears the risk?

Bacon’s Rebellion…. asking the questions no one else will ask.

Update: “Overhead funds” come from sponsored research. “When an outside organization sponsors faculty research (e.g. NIH, General Motors, DOD, etc.) the university collects an overhead fee, in addition to the actual costs associated with the research (such as salaries or equipment costs),” says Larry Hincker, retired associate vice president for university relations. “This is a good example of how sponsored research leverages new activities without using any state funds.”

Probing the Political Economy of Higher Ed

The political economy of higher ed.

UVa President Teresa Sullivan addresses the Faculty Senate in 2012. In this case, faculty and administration united to buck control by the Board of Visitors.

Growing administrative overhead is a major force driving up the cost of higher education. While there is no simple, uni-causal explanation for bureaucratic bloat, George Mason University law professors Todd Zywicki and Christopher Koopman observe that growing higher-ed bureaucracy coincides with a long-brewing power shift in academe from faculties to administrators.

“Of particular concern and importance appears to be the relationship between the faculty and administration that has, in many ways, created a permissive culture in which administrative bloat has been allowed to thrive,” they write in a new paper, “The Changing of the Guard: The Political Economy of Administrative Bloat in American Higher Education.” “The faculty is either unwilling or unable to take on the growing administrative bureaucracies.”

Zywicki and Koopman identify other forces at work as well. One contributor to bloat is the pressure to provide students with more luxurious accommodations — the so-called “Club Ed” phenomenon — and the increasing subsidies in the form of federal loans and grants to students to pay for it all. But the overarching theme in their paper is a shift in internal power from faculties to administrators.

“The faculty essentially ran universities for their own personal benefit, adopting policies that benefited the faculty and which they rationalized as being good for the university as a whole,” the authors write. “Faculty salaries and perquisites increased, teaching loads decreased, and faculty increasingly asserted control over many of the core functions of the university.”

In recent years, however, the balance of power has tipped to administrators who have captured the unprecedented flow of tuition revenue (financed by federal loans and grants) and lush endowments to pursue their agenda of expanding bureaucratic fiefdoms and enhancing institutional prestige.

Universities have plowed more resources into administrative hires and compensation than into faculty. Between 1980 and 2009, spending per student increased 61.2% for administration while spending on instruction increased 39.3%. Universities now have more full-time employees devoted to administration than to instruction, research and service combined. It takes 39% more full-time administrators to manage the same number of students than it did in 1993.

As administrators have taken the lion’s share of resources, so have they abrogated power, say Zywicki and Koopman. “Today the faculty has little or no input or control over student admissions, a task that has been completely delegated to bureaucratic specialists.”

Decisions with respect to hiring and promotion are increasingly hemmed by a raft of guidances and limits imposed by administrators, such as diversity mandates and the like. Perhaps most astonishingly, core policies regarding academic freedom for students and professors — such as the existence and terms of a university speech code — have increasingly been ceded to student life offices and other non-academic university administrators. Administrators have also unilaterally imposed student and faculty disciplinary procedures for certain controversial topics such as allegations of sexual assault, routinely overriding faculty objections. Thus, not only do university bureaucrats consume an increase amount of university resources, they also have gathered an increasing amount of power and decision-making authority.

What is driving the power shift? One explanation is increasing federal regulation and ever-expanding requests for information by state and institutional governing boards. Whenever federal legislation on higher education is enacted, Zywicki and Koopman say, the government establishes a new office to administer the law. Subsequently a “clone” of that office appears on most major university campuses.

Faculty members have largely acquiesced to the growing bureaucracy. One possible reason, the duo says, is that they have benefited from the outsourcing of traditional duties, such as advising students, to academic administrators.

The prototypical professor … has three related objectives: job security, freedom to spend his time on activities he prefers, and maximization of professional reputation and income. The prototypical administrator seeks to keep his job, build his reputation, and to free his own time for outside income opportunities. Further, the administrator also shares the goal common to all managers, such as the desire for status and power manifested in a large office and support staff.

Thus, senior professors devote more time to their own research and writing while sloughing off teaching and other duties to instructors, graduate students and others. Administrators are happy to take up the slack, expanding their spheres of responsibility.

The two GMU profs have no concrete recommendations to reverse administrative bloat, although they suggest that the non-profit structure of public universities is part of the problem. Under a for-profit model of higher ed, they suggest, equity holders would focus on efficiency. “In such a governance system, a runaway growth in administration is unlikely as it reduces the bottom line profit. … A for-profit ownership and governance model could better align the incentives of owner, managers and students in a way that the current structure does not.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Privatization is an interesting idea, although I think it demands closer scrutiny. The track record of for-profit education in an era of indiscriminate federal student loans has been less than glorious. And, unless privatization is handled properly, university administrators will control the process and enrich themselves. Think Russia, Yeltsin, privatization and oligarchs.

More rewarding for our purposes here at Bacon’s Rebellion, Zywicki and Koopman provide a useful framework for understanding public colleges and universities in Virginia. In all my scribblings on the topic of higher ed, I had never paid close attention to the “political economy” inside public universities, much less the balance of power between faculties and administrators. I had more or less assumed that the interests of the two groups were aligned in protecting university prerogatives against tuition-paying parents, soundbite-spewing legislators and other pitchfork-wielding Philistines who would claw back tuition, fees and state support. But I now appreciate that there might be an ongoing struggle between faculty and administrators over the spoils. I will be more attentive to this dynamic in my future coverage of Virginia colleges and universities.

New Question: What Role Does the President’s Office Play in UVa Admissions?

UVa spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn. Pay careful attention to what he says and how he says it.

The University of Virginia’s office of University Advancement curried favor for children of major donors by working through the office of President Teresa Sullivan rather than lobbying the admissions department directly.

That’s the big reveal in reporting by Daily Progress reporter Derek Quizon in his follow-up to the Washington Post reporting on documents showing that the University of Virginia’s fund-raising office routinely intervenes on behalf of applicants from families of potential donors.

More than 160 pages of records, uncovered by writer Jeff Thomas through a Freedom of Information Act request and given to the Washington Post, reveal dozens of instances in which the university advancement office monitored the progress of particular applicants through the admissions process.

Quizon built on the WaPo story by highlighting the fact that, rather than seeking to influence the admissions office directly, advancement officials often appealed to Sean Kirk Jenkins, a special assistant to President Teresa Sullivan. Jenkins is repeatedly referenced in the documents.

However, Quizon concludes after his review of the evidence, “It’s not clear how successful the advancement office was in these outreach efforts.”

University spokesman Anthony de Bruyn denied that the university favors the children of donors, but he conceded in communication with the Daily Progress that the advancement office does maintain contact with donors and alumni “recommending students who have an interest in attending UVa.”

De Bruyn’s statements (as quoted and paraphrased by Quizon) seem carefully wordsmithed.

“This practice allows development officers to serve as a buffer with those alumni, donors and friends who have provided prospective student endorsements during the admission cycle,” de Bruyn said. “However, the admissions office makes the independent determination on whether a student is admitted or not.”

In line with university protocol, the admissions office does not coordinate with the advancement office during the admissions process, de Bruyn said.

But the concern now isn’t that the advancement office coordinated with the admissions office, it’s that the advancement office coordinated with the president’s office and that Jenkins might have intervened with the admissions office. Quizon continues:

When asked whether the advancement office has ever successfully changed an applicant’s admission status, de Bruyn repeated that admissions officials are the only ones who determine who gets into the university.

“The advancement office does not determine whether an applicant is admitted,” he said.

Again, de Bruyn is answering Quizon’s queries very narrowly. Someone needs to ask him directly, “Does the president’s office ever seek to influence the admissions process?” Another question to ask: “Even if admissions officers have the final say on who gets in, does influence from the president’s office carry any weight?”

Bacon’s bottom line: Here’s what we know: (1) UVa donors and potential donors frequently seek special treatment for their children. (2) They enlist the help of the office of University Advancement. (3) University Advancement seeks to influence selections through the office of the President. We don’t know whether the office of the president exercises any influence on Admissions. But the FOIA documents and UVa’s careful response to questions fuel our suspicions.

Nothing de Bruyn said contradicts the hypothesis that Jenkins intervened on behalf of University Advancement, and it’s difficult to understand why advancement officials would have repeatedly worked through Jenkins unless they thought that he might be able to help them. But there is no proof. We cannot rule out the possibility that, in contravention of our cynical expectations, Jenkins never lifted a finger for the favor seekers.

Reporters covering this story should focus on the Jenkins connection. Thomas’ original Freedom of Information Act request was limited to the advancement office. Someone needs to expand the FOIA request to obtain Jenkins‘ communications with the admissions office.

At the same time, we need to be careful what we make of this favoritism, if in fact it occurs. As I mentioned in my previous post on this topic, we may be talking relatively small numbers — only 59 children of potential donors were mentioned in the FOIA documents. The actual number might have been larger — we don’t know for sure. But the number given preferential treatment, if indeed such treatment can be documented, could be much smaller. If a couple dozen of the roughly 10,000 students admitted to UVa this year benefited from favoritism, this is not a massive scandal. Yes, it strips away the veneer that UVa admits all students on a purely meritocratic basis (leavened by aggressive recruitment of minorities). That would put it in the same camp as every other university in the country. If there is a scandal, it is national in scope, and we have no way of no way of knowing whether UVa’s (alleged) sins are more or less egregious than those of any other institution.

A Thumb on the Scale for Rich Kids Applying to UVa

The University of Virginia — how meritocratic?

The news hardly comes a surprise but it’s unnerving to see the details in print: The University of Virginia’s fund-raising arm seeks to help the children of potential donors gain admittance to the university, according to documents reviewed by the Washington Post.

Writes reporter Rees Shapiro: “The records from the U-Va. advancement office, which oversees fundraising for the prestigious public flagship, reveal nearly a decade of efforts to monitor admission bids and in some cases assist those in jeopardy of rejection.”

One of several examples cited in the article:

The 2011 list, for example, shows that one hopeful was initially marked as denied. Then an advancement officer scribbled a handwritten note on the tracking file: “$500k.” A typed notation said “must be on WL,” for wait list. A final handwritten note urged, “if at all possible A,” for accepted. The final decision on the applicant was not shown.

A university spokesman denied that the admissions office coordinates with the advancement office, although he did acknowledge, “The Office of Advancement is occasionally contacted by alumni, friends and supporters recommending students who have an interest in attending U-Va. Such a practice is not unique to U-Va. and can be found at similar institutions.”

The Post obtained 164 pages of documents, mostly spreadsheets, from Jeff Thomas, author of the 2016 book, “Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power,” who in turn had gotten them through a Freedom of Information Act request. In the book Thomas was highly critical of UVa admission and financial aid policies, but he did not make use of the materials he passed on to the Post.

The University is one of the richest schools in the country, with an endowment of $5.8 billion, notes the Post. Building the endowment through contributions is a never-ending preoccupation of the UVa brass. The funds are needed to meet the Board of Visitors’ ambitious goal to break into the ranks of the Top 10 universities in the country.

Bacon’s bottom line: So, UVa gives special treatment to students whose wealthy parents might donate big bucks to the university. UVa denies it happens, but nobody believes the disclaimers. The fact is, almost every university in the country does what UVa does. Every institution grubs for money to pay for its dreams of institutional glory.

But let’s put this in perspective. How frequent is the phenomenon, and how many meritorious students does the practice displace?

The documents cited by the Post show that the admissions office tracked at least 59 applicants for the incoming class of 2021. I do not know how Jeff Thomas phrased his FOIA request, but if we assume that he asked for all relevant documents and that UVa was responsive to that request, 59 is probably a ceiling.

How many of those 59 received preferential treatment? Consider the following possibilities:

  • Some applicants would have qualified for admission on their own merits and needed no preferential treatment.
  • Interventions were not always successful. As one advancement officer wrote in a tracking file: ““According to people who have talked to him, [the donor] is livid about the WL decision and holding future giving in the balance. Best to resolve quickly, if possible.” The implication here is that a resolution favorable to the donor was no sure thing.
  • Not every one of the applicants who received an acceptance letter chose to attend UVa. Some students receive better offers elsewhere and turn UVa down.

Even if all 59 students got accepted, if all 59 owed their success to the good graces of the advancement office, and if all 59 decided to attend, they would have accounted for fewer than o.2 percent of the 36,807 applicants to the university that year, and only 0.6 percent of the 9,957 admissions.

Finally, let’s consider who would get knocked off the acceptance list. It wouldn’t be some poor kid from inner-city Norfolk or a coal mining town in Appalachia. UVa admissions prioritizes the best and brightest from poor communities. The victim probably would be an upper middle-class kid from Fairfax or Henrico counties whose SAT scores, high school transcripts and essays didn’t stand out quite enough. Gee, they might have to settle for Virginia Tech or James Madison, both highly regarded schools. What a heartbreak!

In terms of numbers, the displacement of 59 applicants by kids from mega-donor families is almost trivial. A far greater barrier to attending UVa is the ever-escalating cost of attendance. That’s where our focus should be.

Update: Jeff Thomas contacted me to say that the reason he didn’t use the FOIA’ed documents in his book is that the book was published in October 2016 and he received the materials in March 2017. “You’re correct in assuming that I requested ‘the list for all available years,’ and they provided them for the last ten. I did not request all the documents related to them.”

Who Serves on the Education Committees?

Reader Vic Nicholls raised an obvious question about the lists we’ve posted recently that show the higher-ed affiliations of state legislators: How about the education committees?

One could reasonably hypothesize that legislators who attended Virginia public colleges and universities are more likely than their peers to participate in the legislative committees that oversee their alma maters. Here, using the same color coding as the table I posted yesterday, I summarize the educational affiliations of the Senate and House members who serve on their respective education committees.


Lo and behold, we find that 61% of the House education committee members attended a public undergraduate college, community college or university versus only 41% for the House as a whole.

Likewise, we find that 40% of the Senate education and health committees attended a public undergraduate college versus 30% of the Senate as a whole.

Those numbers seem to confirm our theory. But let’s drill down by examining the composition of the Senate and House higher education subcommittees.Here, we find that only 50% of House subcommittee members attended a public undergraduate college in Virginia — actually a smaller percentage than the House education committee.

Here, we find that 40% of the Senate subcommittee members attended a public undergraduate college in Virginia — the same percentage as for the committee.

There is no denying that legislators with deeper ties to Virginia public universities serve disproportionately on the House and Senate committees and subcommittees overseeing higher education. But the differences are not dramatic. It would be hard to build a case based on these numbers alone that the General Assembly committee and subcommittee structure are stacked with legislators with a predisposition, as measured by their educational affiliations, in favor of public higher-ed in Virginia.

This quick survey is hardly the final word. It would be interesting to see if these committee members maintain strong ties with their Virginia alma maters. Do they contribute to fund-raising campaigns? Do they attend football and basketball games? Do they participate in alumni events? Do they serve on university boards or committees? Do they serve large higher-ed constituencies in their districts? One can always dig deeper.

Virginia Delegates’ School Ties

When I asked if a reader would be willing to compile the educational background of Virginia’s House of Delegates members, Carol Bova responded to the call. Thanks, Carol! This list is meant to accompany a list, published yesterday, of state senators’ school ties.

Here is the logic behind my color coding. Light blue indicates that a delegate has attended a private Virginia college or university, hence has had at least a tangential involvement with Virginia higher ed. The medium blue indicates that a delegate has attended a public university, reflecting a deeper connection to Virginia’s state-supported system of higher education. The dark blue indicates undergraduate attendance at a Virginia college or university. In my experience people feel the strongest ties to schools they attended as undergraduates.

Elaborating upon the hypothesis advanced in “Legislators, School Ties and Funding,” that legislators are more likely to approve state support for higher ed if they attended a public university, I would expect, all other factors being equal, the strongest support to come from elected officials with the strongest ties to the institutions receiving the funding.

If anyone has any ideas of how to correlate these school ties with critical votes cast, let me know.

Legislators, School Ties and Public Funding

Public state colleges and universities benefit when alumni are elected to state legislatures. A Duke University study, “School Spirit: Legislator School Ties and State Funding for Higher Education,” finds that every state legislator who attended an in-state public college or university is associated with an additional $3.5 million in funding.

“Our results show a statistically significant, positive association between funding and the share of legislators who attended in-state public institutions,” write Aaron K. Chatterji, Joowon Kim and Ryan C. McDevitt. The positive relationships are even stronger for legislators with school ties who also represent the alma mater’s district.

States the study: “An addition of one publicly-educated senator who also represents his or her alma mater is associated with an estimated $375.9 million increase in state funding of higher education, compared to an increase of $21.6 million by adding an identical senator without alma mater representation.”

The study got me to thinking. What are the old-school connections between Virginia legislators and public Virginia universities? Public attention has focused on Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, and his ties to the College of William & Mary. But what other connections are there? Herewith are Bacon’s Rebellion’s findings for the state senate:

All but nine senators have a Virginia educational connection. By my hasty counting before moving on to the next blog post, 22 attended a public Virginia institution of higher education.

It would be interesting to explore deeper connections. For example, Del. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, is a member, his bio says, of William & Mary’s Challenge 1 Strategic Planning Committee, and served three years as Chairman of the Athletic Educational Foundation. In 2002, William and Mary awarded him the Young Alumni Service Award.

I wish I had time today to conduct a similar exercise for members of the House of Delegates, but I don’t. If a kind and selfless reader out there is interested enough to do the grunt work, I’ll be happy to publish the results.

Update: Hamilton Lombard with the demographics group at the University of Virginia reminds me that his former colleague Luke Juday presented data on the StatChat blog two years ago about where Virginia’s delegates went to college.

Deciphering Higher Ed Statistics

Last week at a State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) board meeting, board member Heywood Fralin launched into an impromptu digression on a topic of great frustration to him: the claim that for every dollar the General Assembly has cut in state support to higher education, state colleges and universities have increased tuition by two dollars.

“Reports about tuition increases lack perspective,” said Fralin, a successful businessman and former head of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors. The two-for-one claim might reflect reality if you pick 1996 as a starting date, he said, but if you select 2001 as the starting date, you would see a one-for-one match between state cuts and tuition increases.

Fralin was correct in pointing out that it matters which start and end dates are used in making a statistical analysis. But was the year 2001 any more reflective of reality when analyzing the impact of state budget cuts on tuition than the year 1996?

The two-for-one claim likely originated in a presentation by fiscal analyst Tony Maggio at a House Appropriations Committee retreat in November 2016. At that event, Maggio shared the following chart:

Translator key: UG = undergraduate, GF = General Fund, FTE = Full-time equivalent, T&F = tuition & fees, I/S = In-State, O/S = Out-of-State. Maggio’s bottom line: “Essentially, in-state tuition grew $2 for every $1 loss in General Fund.”

By Maggio’s calculation, state support per in-state student (nobody is terribly concerned about out-of-state students) shrank by $1,634 inflation-adjusted dollars between 1996 and 2015. Over the same period, average inflation-adjusted tuition & fees increased by $3,186, almost twice as much.

Legislators picked up this factoid during the 2017 General Assembly session. During a press conference highlighting several bills designed to reign in runaway tuition increase, Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, declared, “For every dollar we cut, they raise tuition two dollars.” The claim was repeated in newspaper ads paid for by Partners 4 Affordable Education (a Bacon’s Rebellion sponsor). I’ve repeated the number myself on this blog.

A March editorial in the Virginian-Pilot, cited by Fralin, took exception to the two-to-one meme.

When an advocacy group recently placed newspaper ads and op-eds asserting that Virginia colleges raise tuition $2 for every $1 dollar of state funding cuts, it was the wrong thing to do. It was misleading to the point of being false.

Over the 15-year period since 2001, there has been roughly a 1:1 correlation between state funding cuts and tuition hikes.

How do you get a figure of $2 in tuition increases per $1? By including cuts made between 1996 and 2001.

It could have been far more useful to evaluate the 15 years between 2001-2015. That would include the last two recessions, along with corresponding budget cuts and tuition increases.

It is interesting to see the Virginian-Pilot accuse the newspaper ad of being “misleading to the point of being false” for picking a start date that fit its narrative while the editorial writer did precisely the same thing! The table below (also prepared by Tony Maggio) shows how a starting date of 2001, when state support was highest, would include the cuts in state support that followed and exclude the increases that preceded it, thus biasing the findings in a totally different direction.

This graph, prepared by House of Delegates staffer Tony Maggio, shows General Fund support per in-state undergraduate student at Virginia’s public four-year institutions using a starting date of 1996. The yellow highlight (which I added) shows the starting date proposed by a Virginian-Pilot editorial writer.

The Pilot editorial writer did raise one interesting point: Perhaps comparisons should take into account the fiscal impact of the business cycle. In the writer’s view, it was important to “include the last two recessions, along with corresponding budget cuts and tuition increases.” Continue reading

Probing the Limits of Tuition Hikes at VCU

VCU is going where no Virginia university has gone before: high tuition, needy student body, low financial aid.

VCU is going where no Virginia university has gone before: high tuition, needy student body, low financial aid.

Virginia Commonwealth University is pondering a tuition increase of between 3% and 5% — over and above a 2.8% increase for the current academic year — to compensate for an $8 million reduction in state appropriations and a 3% salary raise authorized by the General Assembly, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Meanwhile, the university plans to hire a firm to recruit more international students to bolster revenue with lucrative out-of-state tuition payments. (The total cost of attendance for an out-of-state student is about $19,000 higher than for an in-state student).

If the VCU board of visitors OKs the tuition hike, Virginians will get to observe an interesting experiment in higher-ed economics — how high can a second-tier university push tuition before diminishing enrollment? Is there an upper bound to the cost of attendance at which point students say, “No more!”?

VCU has increased its tuition aggressively over the past decade. By the 2015-16 academic year, the Richmond university had the second highest in-state cost of attendance of any public, four-year institution in the state: $26,700. That was higher than the University of Virginia’s and second only to the College of William & Mary’s. Likewise, VCU’s out-of-state cost of attendance, at $48,500, was the third highest. (I draw these numbers from the SCHEV’s higher education database.)

Two Virginia universities with stellar national reputations, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, arguably have the latitude to boost their tuition & fees should they choose to do so. Perceived as near-Ivy League in quality, they likely could get away with charging near-Ivy League prices. Virginia Tech is not quite in the same league, but its undergraduate engineering school is one of the top rated in the country, so the institution probably has some pricing leeway, especially considering that its cost of attendance is lower than the state average.

Although VCU has a rising reputation among state universities, it has not reached the rarefied atmosphere where it can charge top dollar. Demand for a VCU education is more “elastic,” meaning that students are more sensitive to price increases. Here’s my question: Will higher prices at VCU push down enrollment by discouraging students from applying?

The chart below compares VCU to two peer institutions — big research universities located in large metropolitan areas — George Mason University and Old Dominion University — and adjusts the sticker price by the amount of financial aid provided.

“Financial aid per student” was derived by dividing total in-state financial aid by total in-state undergraduate enrollment. All numbers are for undergraduate students.

VCU is not a bargain: Its net cost of attendance per year is almost $2,500 higher than George Mason’s and about $11,000 higher than Old Dominion’s.

Now consider that VCU draws from a less affluent demographic base than, say, UVa or W&M. Sixty-eight percent of its students graduate with debt. Indeed, 29% of VCU students receive federal Pell grants reserved for lower-income students. Needless to say, these students are highly price sensitive.

How much in higher expenses can VCU’s less-affluent demographic absorb? At what point will enrollment numbers start declining? VCU’s board of visitors seems determined to probe the outer limit. Continue reading

What Does SCHEV Do? More than You Think.

Think of SCHEV as the Commonwealth Transportation Board of higher ed -- but with bigger staff and more responsibility.

Think of SCHEV as the Commonwealth Transportation Board of higher ed — but with bigger staff and more responsibility.

Someone asked me the other day what the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) does. It monitors and coordinates the state’s public universities, I said. But what does it actually do, my friend said. Well, I replied, it puts together a strategic plan for higher education, and it maintains a lot of databases, and conducts a lot of analysis. But does it actually have any power, my friend persisted.

Well, I’m just a couple of months into covering higher education as a beat, and I’m still learning. But during a board meeting held at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, I learned yesterday of at least one substantive power SCHEV exercises. Colleges and universities wanting to implement new academic programs must obtain SCHEV approval. And the organization does not rubber stamp requests.

Three proposals came before the Council yesterday — two were approved but one, an Old Dominion University request to launch an M.S. program in sports management, was kicked back to the university for re-tooling.

The Council approved a request by Tidewater Community College to establish an Associate of Fine Arts degree.  The degree is designed specifically to ease the transfer of TCC students to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Bachelor of Music Program. The new degree will allow students to complete their bachelor’s degree with an estimated 124 credit hours rather than the 144 that would have been required otherwise. Those 20 credit hours represent a significant savings in time and tuition to the transferring student, and the program advances SCHEV’s goal of providing a lower-cost pathway to a B.A. degree than a full stint at a four-year institution.

The Council approved a similar J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College program providing an Associate of Science degree to community college students seeking to earn a science degree at a four-year institutions. The logic was similar: to grease the transition between community college and four-year college.

But the ODU sports management program encountered heavy skepticism in SCHEV’s Academic Affairs and Planning Committee, and that committee recommended that the program not be approved at this time.

ODU has long offered a physical education degree with a concentration in sports management. But the university wanted to expand the concentration to a standalone program because sports management needs a pedagogically distinct curriculum. Additionally, claimed ODU, there is a strong industry demand in Hampton Roads for master-level graduates in sports management.

But SCHEV staff concluded otherwise, primarily on the grounds that no documentation exists of the proffered demand in the Hampton Roads sports industry. Moreover, a 2015 study of sports management master’s degree programs generally found that not only were sports management graduate degree holders earning less than other graduate degree holders, but they were earning less than those with a bachelor’s degree.

Rather than rejecting the request outright, the SCHEV board asked ODU to re-try to strengthen the program. (For details, see the SCHEV board’s March agenda book, beginning page 26.)

Thus, dear reader, while Virginia does maintain one of the most decentralized systems of higher education in Virginia, the state oversight body is far from toothless. Colleges and universities can not create expensive new programs, departments and schools without SCHEV’s blessing. Staff analyzes the student demand and market demand for each request and examines possible duplication with programs at other institutions to ensure that the investment of resources is justified. In that way, the Council is comparable to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which has the final say over transportation funding projects.

Furthermore, SCHEV’s powers and prerogatives will expand this year thanks to 12 new responsibilities assigned it by the General Assembly. Most are arcane items that would mean little to the general public. But at least one will give the Council a significant role in economic development: developing the Commonwealth Research and Technology Strategic Roadmap. This planning tool will identify research areas worthy of economic development and institutional focus. Priority projects will receive grants from a $2.8 million funding round this year from the Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund.

Every arrangement has its advantages and disadvantages. Virginia’s decentralized model of higher ed certainly has  flaws — and I will not hesitate to point them out when I encounter them. But by common estimation, Virginia has one of the best, if not the best, systems of higher education in the country. The SCHEV model of measuring, monitoring and lightly regulating Virginia’s colleges and universities has much to recommend it.