Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

Call Me Crazy, But…

Some 43 years ago I arrived at the Homewood Campus of the Johns Hopkins University, enrolled in a Ph.D. program in African history under the tutelage of the then-dean of African historians, Philip Curtin. From an academic perspective, the program was brilliantly conceived. Hopkins had recruited top professors from the Yale University anthropology program with idea of creating an interdisciplinary historical-anthropological approach to studying nations and cultures bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Faculty and grad students gathered in weekly sessions to share insights into the interaction between civilizations as Europe established its primacy over Africans and native Americans. (Bernard Moitt, now a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, studied with me under Curtin.)

As intellectually stimulating as the program was in some ways, it was stifling in another. Ideological diversity of the faculty ranged from Marxist to far Left. Virtually all research and inquiry shared the common assumptions that (a) European colonialism was an unequivocal evil and (b) all the problems of the Third World in the early 1970s could be attributed to the legacies of colonialism and neo-imperialism. As the lone political conservative in the program, I stood out like a Christian missionary in the court of Shaka Zulu. When, as a junior-ranking graduate student, I dared express myself, I often inspired astonished disbelief. Colonialism wasn’t all bad, I suggested one time. Sure, it was exploitative in ways, but Great Britain ended the slave trade, quelled predatory African kingdoms, repressed tribal conflict, built roads and railroads, created export industries, and established a rule of law. I might as well have proclaimed that I ate my boogers for lunch.

The end result wasn’t pretty. While I wasn’t kicked out of the program, Curtin yanked my stipend, making it impossible for me to support myself while putting in a minimum of 60 hours of weekly study. In breaking the bad news, he made two suggestions. First, that I wasn’t really cut out for academia; perhaps I should consider a career as a stock broker. Second, that I should see a psychiatrist. Getting psychiatric help wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, he said. It might do me some good.

While Curtin was aloof and indifferent to my travails as a graduate student, he wasn’t deliberately cruel. He was quite sincere about my need for psychiatric help. He never did say exactly what I should seek help for, but I suspect that he thought I had something akin to Tourette’s syndrome — blurting out wildly inappropriate statements. To his mind, the gap in his frame of reference for looking at the world and my frame of reference was so vast that it could not be explained by a simple difference of opinion. There was something wrong with me. Although he never put it this way, I was emotionally or mentally defective.

That’s the baggage I carry with me when I hear politicians and mainstream organizations decry President Donald Trump as clinically insane.

Now, while I support many of his policies, I dislike Trump personally. I did not vote for him. I regard him as a Narcissist — an insecure Narcissist — who takes wildly disproportionate umbrage to insults. He picks needless fights. He is coarse, uncouth, and a misogynist. He is shockingly inarticulate and ignorant at times. He tweets before he thinks, causing needless chaos. And while I doubt that he is a racist, he is indubitably indifferent to the sensibilities of ethnic and racial minorities. In word and deed, he has degraded the dignity of the office of the presidency. 

But is he insane? Is he certifiably wacko, as we have been hearing in a growing crescendo of commentary in the news media? Is he a maniac with his finger on the nuclear button? No. Trump is very sane. His cognitive functioning is fine. He doesn’t have split personalities. He doesn’t hear voices in his head. His real sin is that he entertains a different version of reality than those who detest him the most.

As I learned from personal experience four decades ago, the Left in this country does not simply think that those who do not share their views of the world are simply uninformed, have different values, or have reached illogical conclusions. They are not merely wrong, they are defective as human beings. Either they are motivated by base self-interest and greed, or they are incredibly stupid, or they are clinically insane. Thus, in the formulation of the Left, Ronald Reagan was an amiable dunce; George W. Bush was lampooned as incurious and a non-reader,  and caricatured a chimpanzee; and Trump is a certifiable basket case — a greedy basket case out to enrich himself and overthrow democracy. The Left loves to psycho-analyze those it hates and to find them defective.

The Left scares me. While I disagree with cultural conservatives on many issues, at least they’re not trying to impose their views on me. At least they don’t brand their enemies as psychos — although, given the displays I’ve witnessed of Trump Derangement Syndrome, perhaps they should.

This column was published originally in The Republican Standard.

The Case for Performance-Based Funding in Higher Ed

The following position paper was published by Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a sponsor of the Bacon’s Rebellion blog.

ISSUE: Performance-based (also known as outcomes-based) Funding for Virginia’s Public Colleges and Universities

PROBLEM:  Until a little over a decade ago, nearly all state funding for higher education was based on enrollment. Regardless of any outcome other than access, colleges and universities were funded simply on the number of students who attended courses, often measured mid-course, creating no institutional incentives or accountability for course completion or any other indicators of student success. 

OPPORTUNITY: Performance-based funding, also referred to as outcomes-based funding, is the growing concept that state funding for higher education should be connected to student success, rather than just course enrollment.  While the definition of performance-based funding can vary, there are currently at least 26 states implementing performance-based funding. There are also at least eight more states currently in transition to performance-based funding and several others in formal discussion around the concept. By connecting state funds to outcomes, institutions are not only financially incentivized to increase student success, but are also held publicly accountable to their peer institutions on common metrics.

SOLUTION: Performance-based funding formulas vary from state to state.  Typically states create separate formulas for community colleges and universities. Some formulas simply focus on shifting from only measuring seat-time enrollment to the number of students who complete a course with a passing grade, while others focus on more complicated and granular metrics of student success. To ensure incentives do not flow only to highly selective institutions, states weight metrics for at risk students (e.g., low-income and adult students). Additionally, several have or allow different metrics based on institutional missions. States also tend to create policies that limit risk and volatility for institutions, including having a guaranteed operational subsidy, only using new funds for performance-based funding, and/ or measuring outcomes on three- year averages.

Examples of leading states allocating nearly all their higher education funds on the basis of performance include:

Ohio: They have shifted to nearly 100% performance-based funding, with many of the metrics weighted based on at-risk students as well as specific program costs.

  • Universities: 50% of funding is based on number of degrees awarded, 30% is based on course completions, and 20% for doctoral and research set asides.
  • Community colleges; 50% of funding is based on course completions, 25% based on success points (includes achieving certain credit milestones and completing developmental courses and enrolling in college-level courses), and 25% based on completion (including associate degrees, transfer, and certificates).

Tennessee: Nearly all funds are awarded based on outcomes. Community colleges and universities have different success outcomes measured on a three-year average with weights added for adults and/or low-income students. Community college metrics include students accumulating 12, 24, and 36 credit hours, dual enrollments, job placements, degrees and certificates. University outcome metrics include students accumulating 30, 60, and 90 credit hours, degrees, research, and graduation rates, and are further weighted to align with institutional missions.

The Case for Public Comments at University Board Meetings

Norman Rockwell, “Freedom of Speech,” 1943.

The following position paper was published by Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a sponsor of the Bacon’s Rebellion blog.

ISSUE: Public Comment for Virginia’s Colleges and Universities

PROBLEM: Currently, the decision to raise tuition and fees on students of Virginia colleges and universities is done without any required public input. Yet rate-setting is one of the most important and consequential responsibilities that any policy board possesses. That’s why the law gives citizens the right to address their respective city council or local board of supervisors – the stereotypical 3 minutes at the podium – prior to these policy bodies setting the local property tax rate.

But the opportunity to provide public comment to inform public decision-making goes well beyond local elected bodies. This right of citizens extends to many appointed policy bodies in Virginia.*

The fact that the affected public, including student and parent consumers, have no say in rate-setting in some of Virginia’s largest enterprises (state colleges and universities) is an exception of the law and defies basic expectation of regular appointed policy bodies in the Commonwealth and their treatment of citizens.

OPPORTUNITY: Creating the expectation that appointed governing bodies of Virginia public colleges and universities at least consider the input of the public prior to setting the tuition-rate would be a fundamental improvement in their governance and responsiveness to the Commonwealth they serve.       

This policy would align the practices of college and university governing boards with the existing requirements of other appointed boards in the Commonwealth.

In addition, at least ten other U.S. states (Arizona, California, Hawaii, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington) require public comment as part of governing board meetings.

SOLUTION: Require governing bodies of Virginia public colleges and universities to adopt public participation policies that include public comment periods at board meetings. In 2017, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law (SB1376, unanimous vote in both chambers) that requires colleges and universities to notify the public about their plans to increase tuition. The next logical step, is requiring public comment prior to those decisions.


*The legal requirement for public participation/comment includes, but is not limited to, the following appointed Virginia state boards and commissions (links to statutes):

The State Board of Elections
The Commission on Local Government
The Milk Commission
The Board of Conservation and Recreation
Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board
State Council of Higher Education for Virginia
State Air Pollution Control Board
Virginia Aviation Board
Virginia Waste Management Board
State Water Control Board
Motor Vehicle Dealer Board
Commonwealth Transportation Board
Commission of the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program
Apprenticeship Council
Virginia Workers Compensation Commission
Safety and Health Codes Board
Virginia Employment Commission
Virginia Manufactured Housing Board
Board of Historic Resources

A College Ranking to Virginia’s Liking

There are plenty of people in the college rating game these games, from the venerable US News & World-Report to Forbes magazine to the Wall Street Journal. Results vary depending on the criteria selected and the weight assigned to those criteria, both of which entail decisions and value judgments subject to human bias. But what if Artificial Intelligence was used to compile the rankings?

That’s what MetaMetrics, a Durham, N.C.-based company specializing in educational metrics, has tried to do. MetaMetrics research engineer Steve Lattanzio explains:

Was it possible to have a computer algorithm take in a bunch of raw data and, through a sufficiently black-box approach, remove decision points that allow ratings to become subjective? … Could an artificial intelligence discover a latent dimension hidden behind all the noise that was driving data points such as SAT scores, admission rates, earnings, loan repayment rates, and a thousand other things, instead of combining just a few of them in a subjective fashion?

The company drew upon the College Scoreboard, an exhaustive U.S. Department of Education database on colleges, students, and student loans. Lattanzio continues:

We use neural networks to perform “representational learning” through the use of what is called a stacked autoencoder. I’ll skip over the technical details, but the concept behind representational learning is to take a bunch of information that is represented in a lot of variables, or dimensions, and represent as much of the original information as possible with a lot fewer dimensions. In a stacked neural network autoencoder, data entering into the network is squashed down into fewer and fewer dimensions on one side and squeezed through a bottleneck. On the other side of the network, that squashed information is unpacked in an attempt to reconstruct the original data. …  the AI isn’t figuring out which subset of variables it wants to keep and which it wants to discard; it is figuring out how to express as much of the original data as possible in brand new meta-variables that it is concocting by combining the original data in creative ways. …

It turns out that we were able to compress all of the information down to just two dimensions, and the significance of those two dimensions was immediately clear.

One dimension has encoded a latent dimension that is related to things such as the size of the school and whether it is public or private (in fact, the algorithm decided there should be a rift mostly separating larger public institutions from smaller schools). The other dimension is a strong candidate for overall quality of a school and is correlated with all of the standard indicators of quality. It seems as if the algorithm learned that for higher education, if you must break it down into two things, [the data] is best broken down into two dimensions that can loosely be described as quantity and quality.

Got that? Good. So, here are the results for the top 20 colleges:

  1. Duke University
  2. Stanford University
  3. Vanderbilt University
  4. Cornell University
  5. Brown University
  6. Emory University
  7. University of Virginia
  8. University of Chicago
  9. Boston College
  10. University of Notre Dame
  11. College of William & Mary
  12. University of Southern California
  13. Wesleyan University
  14. Yale University
  15. Massachusetts of Technology
  16. Northwestern University
  17. Bucknell University
  18. University of Pennsylvania
  19. Santa Clara University
  20. Carnegie Mellon University

What? No Harvard or Princeton? Correct. The AI does not take into account intangible factors such as prestige. By the AI’s reckoning, it appears, those institutions are over-rated.

Virginia higher-ed officials looking for bragging rights can surely find them with this methodology — at least if they don’t dig too deep. UVa ranks 7th in the country and W&M ranks 11th. They are two of only three public universities on the list. The University of Richmond, described as a “hidden ivy,” logged in at 32nd, while Washington & Lee University scored 63. As comedian Larry David might say, that’s pretty, pretty impressive.

Virginia’s non-elite public universities scored fair to middling, according to the AI’s way of thinking. Out of 1,313 institutions nationally:

James Madison University — 146
Virginia Tech — 157
Virginia Military Institute — 199
George Mason University — 316
Radford University — 482
Longwood University — 495
Virginia Commonwealth University — 504
Old Dominion University — 951
Norfolk State University — 1,164
Virginia State University — 1,213

I could find no mention of Mary Washington University or the University of Virginia-Wise.

MetaMetrics provides plenty of caveats, which you can read here. The ranking “is not perfect and the rankings should not be viewed as infallible,” writes Lattanzio. “But when viewed among other college rankings, its validity is undeniable. It’s not merely a measure of prestige, and it addresses most of the concerns of critics of college rankings, while undoubtedly raising some new ones.”

I do fine one thing very curious. The company is located in Durham, N.C., home of Duke University. Four of the company’s top 11 senior executives have Duke affiliations — as does Lattanzio himself. Who ranks as the No. 1 university in the country? Duke, of course. Pure coincidence? Let’s just say, when Duke plays the University of North Carolina in basketball, you can probably find the AI in the stands rooting for the Blue Devils.

(Hat tip: Mary Helen Willett)

The Only Thing Worse than a Tuition Cap… Is No Tuition Cap

A proposed cap on tuition & fees is a flawed solution for runaway college costs. But it has the virtue, like the sword of Damocles, of focusing the minds of college presidents on what should be their top concern.

In the previous post I published a position paper distributed by the Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a sponsor of this blog, making the case that the General Assembly should freeze tuition & fees at public Virginia universities.

I share the overall goals of Partners — long-time Bacon’s Rebellion readers know that I have crusaded against escalating college tuition for years. College affordability is one of the defining issues of this blog. Also, I fully support the Partners’ proposals for increased transparency and governance reform for Virginia’s higher-ed system. (See “The Reform Agenda of Virginia’s Higher-Ed Critics.“)

Escalating tuition & fees is creating a social crisis as ever-growing numbers of college graduates enter the working world encumbered with ever-growing piles of debt — not counting the college dropouts who fail to earn a degree and enter the workplace lacking the credential needed to find a job that will enable them to pay off their debt. The higher-ed system in this country is creating a generation of debt slaves (who cannot legally discharge their debt) in order to sustain out-of-control spending on administrative sinecures and star faculty who burnish institutional prestige but do little teaching.

So, yes, we have reached a crisis, and something drastic needs to be done. I’m just ambivalent about getting the General Assembly to cap tuition & fees. I see it as a necessary evil.

A strength of Virginia’s system of higher education is its institutional diversity arising from a decentralized system of governance. Virginia’s colleges and universities have been allowed to define their own identities and carve out their own niches in the highly competitive higher-ed marketplace. This has been particularly beneficial for the non-elite institutions. Thus, Mary Washington University has evolved as a college appealing to socially conscious kids with Peace Corps-like aspirations, Longwood University has positioned itself as a champion of the liberal arts (liberal in the traditional sense of the word), Norfolk State University is restructuring itself around faculty-student-alumni collaborations called PODS, and Christopher Newport University has evolved into that rarest of creatures, a college that is friendly to conservatives. These smaller institutions give Virginia’s higher-ed system bench strength that few other state systems possess.

Micro-managing tuition & fees is the antithesis of the decentralized management that has fostered this flowering of second-tier institutions.

Some public institutions have pushed tuition & fee increases more aggressively than others. As the Partners white paper notes, increases have varied widely from college to college, ranging from from 149.8% over the past 15 years at Old Dominion University to 344% at College of William & Mary. Imposing a uniform cap would penalize universities that have withstood the pressure to charge more in the past, depriving them of the ability to make necessary adjustments in the future. Outrage at William & Mary’s excesses do not justify punishing colleges like Virginia Tech, ODU, NSU, Longwood, Virginia State University, and the University of Virginia-Wise Campus, which have pursued more restrained tuition policies over the years.

We need more transparency — more openness into data and into the decision-making process inside colleges and universities — and better governance. Board appointees at public colleges and universities should be instructed that their primary responsibility is to the public and the students they serve, not to ambitious college presidents with dreams of institutional glory. The Partners’ recommendations on this score are excellent.

While I have yet to be persuaded that a freeze on tuition & fees would be a good thing if actually implemented, I do believe it is a useful “sword of Damocles” to hang over the heads of university presidents. Something needs to instill the fear of God in the top echelons of university administrations. University presidents are keenly attuned to the priorities of their internal constituencies. They need also to clearly understand the frustration and outrage of the parents and taxpayers who pay the bills. A credible threat of a tuition freeze should concentrate their minds wonderfully.

The Case for Freezing Tuition & Fees

The following position paper was published by Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a sponsor of the Bacon’s Rebellion blog.

ISSUE:  Tuition and fee increases at public colleges and universities are unaffordable for many Virginia students and families, and must be frozen.

PROBLEM: Tuition and fees at Virginia colleges are increasing at an out-of-control pace, making the cost of higher education a barrier for entry and also constricting graduates who take on debt to attend in-state public universities. In just the past 15 years, the average published tuition and fees charged at a Virginia four-year public institution has increased 3.3 times as fast as Virginia median household income. In that time period, university tuition and fee increases ranged from 149.8% at Old Dominion University to 344% at College of William and Mary, while distinctive higher education costs only increased by 53%.[1] Today, tuition at Virginia’s state universities ranks the seventh highest in America.

While tuition and fees is ultimately a maximum price and financial aid can help offset student costs, in the past 12 years tuition and fees in the state increased by 170%, while state funded financial aid only increased by 75%.[2]  As a result of Virginia’s high growing net cost to students, at least 62% of undergraduate students have turned to loans to attend university, with an average debt level constantly increasing to now $29,822 for recent graduates.[3]  These graduates now make monthly debt payments instead of spending that money contributing to the Virginia economy.

OPPORTUNITY: Dramatically rising tuition has become a national issue and plagues many states.  Recognizing the need to act, several state policymakers and institutional leaders have acknowledged that the ultimate way to improve affordability is to stop the increases in tuition and fees. In the past three years, 23 states have taken the bold move to freeze tuition.[4]  This action attacks the affordability problem at its root, ensuring that students will not spend more money or take out more debt to access public universities in their state.

SOLUTION:  Virginia should stop further tuition and fees increases.  This winter, Virginia public universities are already moving forward with proposed tuition increases for the academic year starting in fall 2018. Policymakers should step in and mandate a tuition and fees freeze at public institutions. During the 2017 Virginia General Assembly Session, legislation was introduced to limit increases in in-state tuition and fees to the annual percentage increases in the consumer price index, national average wage index, and Virginia’s median household income.

Other states that have chosen to implement freezes have done so through legislative mandates. While there are real costs to a high quality higher education that require revenue, Virginia is already in the top 10 of states nationally for dependence on tuition revenue to support higher education costs[5].  Several states have required tuition freezes while considering the need for balanced institutional budgets that focus on student success. For example:

  • California recently passed a four-year plan to freeze tuition in exchange for small increases in state funding to preserve institutional revenue.
  • Ohio has required tuition freezes for much of the past decade, while creating efficiency initiatives for universities to reduce costs without compromising educational quality.

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American Higher Ed: Innovative, Adaptable, Transformative

Edward L. Ayers

by Edward L. Ayers

Here’s a puzzle:  Americans love their own colleges and universities and yet are suspicious of and even disdainful of colleges and universities in general. Why is that?

Polls show that the great majority of Americans who graduated from college are grateful they went to that college, felt they got their money’s worth, and would go there again. The  love of institutions by students, alumni, and neighbors appears in gifts and in  window stickers proclaiming loyalty to their institution long after they have left. People acknowledge that universities are the source of much of our country’s comparative economic and military advantage, that our nation’s system of higher education is one of the great accomplishments of the United States.

And yet criticism of higher education descends from all parts of the political spectrum. From the right, we hear that colleges and universities are overrun with radicals; from the left, we hear that colleges and universities are overrun with corporate and managerial ideals. From the right, we hear that college costs too much because the federal government subsidizes students who should not be there; from the left, we hear that college costs too much because state and federal government has starved them. From the right, we hear that colleges need to rely more on on-line instruction and efficiencies that come from replacing tenure-track faculty with adjuncts. From the left, we hear that on-line education is one more way for big business to take over higher education, the turn to contingent faculty one more way to strip the freedom of thought and expression tenure was created to protect. Both sides agree that administrators are to blame, but for different reasons—either for not being in charge enough or being too much in charge.

The familiar debates over higher education are not very productive, in part because each side indicts rather than persuades the other. Critics begin with assumptions and reverse engineer solutions that meet those assumptions. In the meantime the real and immediate challenges of higher education go unmet.

A broader historical perspective can perhaps help move the conversation forward. Pulling the camera back, we see that the range, depth, and diversity of Americans achieving higher education has increased exponentially over the last half century and is still increasing. Between 1970 and 2017, the total number of students increased from 8.5 million to 20.6 million and the numbers and rates are still increasing. The number of female students increased from 3.5 million to 11.5 million. The percentage of students of color has doubled since 1976.

The transformation is gaining momentum and extending into all aspects of our institutions. Since 2000 alone, the number of low-income students enrolled in college has increased 14 percent, the number of female students by 29 percent, the number of black students by 73 percent, and the number of Hispanic students 126 percent. In 2017, 70 percent of high school graduates went on to another level of higher education, the highest ever. When they arrive in college, these students see that almost a quarter of full-time faculty are persons of color and almost exactly half are women.

These are remarkable, and heartening, transformations, some of the most positive things that have happened in this country over the last half century. They define the context for everything else in higher education, both our success and our remaining challenges.

Because of the transformation, demand for all kinds of education has never been stronger. Our community colleges are bulging at the seams; public universities of all sizes and kinds are flooded with applicants; for-profit and on-line enterprises have grown up to meet a demand that states and non-profits cannot meet. College has never been worth more, for the wage gap between college-educated and non-college educated people is higher now than it has ever been:  56.6%.

Far from being hidebound and resistant to innovation, higher education is and has been one of the most dynamic economic and social components of American society since World War II. Our universities have developed the most transformative industries of our time and have been on the forefront of every major social change. They have been agents of integration, inclusion, and internationalization, advancing the society far beyond their own gates. They are unruly and loud and sometimes self-righteous because they are the places where the nation tests itself, where new generations define what it means to be American.

American higher education, in other words, has never educated more people, it has never educated a broader array of people, it has never offered an education that embraces so many fields of learning, it has never offered degrees more valuable and more coveted, and it has never been more respected and appreciated by the people who benefit from it. The world admires and copies every aspect of America’s diverse system of higher education, from our liberal arts colleges to our research universities.

Colleges and universities have assumed greater responsibilities than ever before. Higher education is now serving a student body far larger, more diverse, and often poorer than ever before in our history. It educates more people from more backgrounds in more ways. Higher education is hard, intellectually and socially, and it is not surprising that those who are the first in their family to go to college or who speak English as a second language or have other work responsibilities may struggle and require more support. Student welfare, engagement, and protection have become institutional responsibilities and those responsibilities bring enormous benefits as well as new costs.

Institutions of higher education are hardly above criticism, of course. In fact, they are built to foster critical thinking, hard questions, good evidence, and strong arguments. In my experience with a broad range of people from a broad range of institutions, colleges and universities are run with rigor, discipline, and hard numbers. They continually explore and test their assumptions, constantly adapt to changing circumstances and learn from one another.

Like those institutions, critics need to focus on particular problems rather than resort to a generalized set of assumptions. The two major problems of American higher education are the amount of debt some students accrue and low levels of completion for some students in some schools. The two problems go together, for the students who do not finish are those who cannot repay the debt they acquire. Most who graduate do not build up large amounts of debt and default rates are low. Students who give up after a year or two, however, are not equipped to get a job that allows them to repay the debt. Colleges themselves, having analyzed the issues, are putting their resources, in the form of need-based aid, to this purpose—hundreds of millions of dollars each year in Virginia alone. A broader focus on behalf of those students would pay the biggest dividends for the institutions and those who support them.

These problems matter. How well colleges and universities succeed matters because higher education embodies and reflects the possibilities of society at large. Questions about affordability are questions about social mobility in America; questions about diversity are questions about fairness in this nation.

Rather than fixating on why “college costs so much,” in other words, it would be better to focus on the more concrete problem of debt and completion, problems that are both byproducts of the transformation and the strongest impediments to its progress. The democratic transformation of American higher education is not complete and it never will be, but it can be advanced with deeper perspective and clearer priorities.

Edward L. Ayers is president emeritus of the University of Richmond. This column is based upon a speech he delivered to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia last week.  

The Reform Agenda of Virginia’s Higher-Ed Critics

While the higher-ed lobby blames cutbacks in state support for the soaring cost of higher education, the Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust (a sponsor of this blog) are advancing the argument that colleges should take responsibility for their own actions. And the Partners are advancing an agenda that goes beyond simple caps on tuition increases in order to achieve fundamental governance reform.

The justification for reform is well known: Tuition for public colleges has risen 74% on average over the past 10 years while inflation has increased only 20%. Virginia baccalaureates are graduating with an average of $30,000 in student debt. Eighty-five percent of Virginians say college isn’t affordable, and 70% said in a 2017 poll that it was very important for policy makers to lower the cost of a college degree.

The Partners advance a six-point platform for Virginia:

  1. Freeze tuition to provide relief for debt-ridden students and parents. This set of proposals also would limit increases in room and board to the Consumer Price Index, and would cap the percentage of out-of-state-students.
  2. Require performance and outcome-based state funding to get at the root of the problem. Other than enrollment, there are no discernible criteria for distributing money to public colleges and universities. The Partners’ proposal would distribute half of all higher-ed appropriations according to outcomes-based metrics such as the percentage of Virginia students enrolled, tuition rates, student graduation rates, average time of degree completion, student employment rates, and median salaries six months after graduation.
  3. Like other Virginia state boards and agencies, require public comment at universities to give voice to students and parents. Virginia law requires that colleges and universities give public notice of planned tuition increases, but provides no provision for public comment.
  4. Eliminate special carve-outs giving FOIA working paper exemptions to college presidents that restrict the public’s view of how public funds are spent. Decision-making at higher-ed institutions is opaque an insulated from public scrutiny. The system could benefit from greater transparency.
  5. Restore public trust by defining a board’s primary duty as to the Commonwealth and her citizens. Appointees to college governing boards, usually alumni, tend to be co-opted by the administration and buy into presidents’ visions for institutional advancement. Many boards rubber stamp administrative proposals. The state code should define university trustees’ primary duty as to the Commonwealth and its citizens.
  6. Re-label “Board of Visitors” to “Board of Trustees” to align with national standards. The name change is symbolic but it puts the emphasis on trust.

Bacon’s bottom line: Overall, this is an excellent set of proposals. It doesn’t just strike out blindly against tuition increases, it takes a comprehensive look at governance reform. I’m ambivalent about the General Assembly imposing a tuition freeze, for reasons that I will explain in a future blog post, although I readily concede that sometimes the only way to fix a problem is with a blunt instrument. I’m also disappointed that the transparency measures don’t include my pet proposal for the collection of additional data that would enable administrators, boards, and the public to evaluate staff and faculty productivity — a driving force behind rising tuition costs. Those caveats aside, I don’t see how any reasonable person could disagree with most of the principles articulated here.

I will be examining some of the issues in depth in future blog posts.

Worthy Cause, Wrong Target

Justin Moore talks to Jennifer Moon, legislative assistant to Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester. Photo credit: Capital News Service

The Capital News Service has published an article on how the higher ed lobby is working state legislators at the General Assembly. The report describes Virginia Commonwealth University student Justin Moore, a clean-cut, well-dressed young man, meeting with a legislative assistant to Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester.

Representatives like Moore came armed with statistics they handed out to legislators, the article says. “From 2008 to 2017, they said, spending per student in Virginia decreased by $1,069, putting a greater financial burden on students.”

These young people are very well intentioned, and they’re using data that someone has provided them. Exactly who has organized this effort and supplied talking points to the students is unclear in this case. The data sounds about right, and I’ll accept the fact that the number is accurate. But it is largely meaningless without context.

Here’s the context: According to State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) data (found here), the average cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board) across all public four-year Virginia institutions of higher education for undergraduate students was $14,683 in the 2007-2008 school year. Adjusting for inflation, that’s $17,358 in today’s dollars. Today the cost of attendance is $22,987.

Let me do the math for you: Adjusting for inflation, an undergraduate’s cost of attending a four-year college increased $5,629 over the decade. If reductions in state support for higher education amounted to $1,069, it accounted for about 19% of the total increased cost of attending college.

Even if we look at tuition only, the average cost rose from $4,761 ($5,560 in inflation-adjusted dollars) to $8,614, or $3,054. Thus, cuts in state support accounted for a little more than a third of the tuition increase over this period. You can get different results if you compare different periods — but these were the years that advocates of increased state spending chose themselves.

However you slice and dice the numbers, state cutbacks in support to higher-ed account for only a fraction of tuition inflation and cannot begin to explain all the inflation in fees, room, and board. To be sure, the General Assembly has not helped the cause of college access and affordability, and earnest students like Justin Moore are more likely to land a one-on-one audience with a legislative aide than they are with presidents of their universities. But perhaps in seeking sympathy for their plight they also should petition administrators who make craft university budgets and the boards of trustees that rubber stamp them.

Make College Trustees More Accountable to Students, Taxpayers

Students at Missouri State University’s aquatic center in 2014. Photo credit: New York Times

James V. Koch

In a competition to woo students, public universities are increasingly offering lavish amenities that have nothing to do with education.

The latest trend is lazy rivers, which have been installed at several big institutions, including the Universities of Alabama, Iowa and Missouri. Last year, Louisiana State University topped them all with a 536-foot-long “leisure” river in the shape of the letters “LSU,” part of an $85 million renovation and expansion of its gym. It was L.S.U. students who footed the bill.

At a time when college has never been more expensive, this is the last thing students should be paying for. According to the College Board, tuition and fees at public four-year institutions grew more than 60 percent over the past 10 years. State budgets for higher education have been slashed, and students have to make up the difference.

In the case of L.S.U., the lazy river was financed entirely by student fees, an addendum to their annual tuition. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, over the past five years, those fees increased by 60 percent, nearly triple the amount L.S.U. students paid in 2000.

Tuition and fee hikes at public universities don’t come out of nowhere. Each has to be approved by a school’s governing board, whose trustees are typically appointed by the governor. Ensuring affordable, quality education is an essential part of trustees’ responsibility, but unfortunately often not part of their practice.

Trustees of public universities are stewards of a public trust that rests nobly on the notion that an enlightened citizenry is vital to a democratic society. They have a fiduciary duty to represent the citizens and taxpayers who support public institutions of higher education, as well as the students who attend them. But even though the best interests of students and taxpayers revolve around college access, affordability and graduation outcomes, too often presidents and boards are more focused on the rankings, reputation and popularity of the institution itself.

In my career as the president of two state universities and a consultant to nearly 50 higher-education institutions, I’ve observed dozens of college presidents skillfully co-opt their governing boards into approving costly projects that make schools look more attractive. (Of course, every college president has to increase costs sometimes. But the goal is to make sure it is necessary, while keeping expenses as low as possible for students.)

Trustees, who typically meet four to eight times each year, are entertained as if they are visiting heads of state, flattered for their service and financial contributions to the institution. College presidents sweeten requests for new buildings and research centers, as well as additional student affairs programming, with cleverly branded words like “promise” and “excellence.” What board would want to withhold promise and excellence from its beloved student body?

College presidents also tranquilize trustees into agreement with impossibly large volumes of reading material. Trustees get binders full of documentation about institutional successes that are padded with expensive plans for increasing growth and reputation. Most come away impressed by their president’s expertise and vision and assured that — thanks to their efforts — the university is on the right track.

The unfortunate truth is that while most college presidents care deeply about their institution’s success, an important part of their job is to shake free more resources. They seldom initiate serious campaigns to contain costs.

This means it falls on trustees to be better prepared to help challenge costly proposals that don’t add educational value. When it comes to state schools, the states themselves should educate trustees to understand their responsibilities to the citizenry and students. Training on big-picture issues and higher-education trends, such as the financial trade-off between instruction and research, the costs of intercollegiate athletics, and the expansion of amenities, would help trustees develop courage to ask college presidents probing questions that look beyond institutional narratives and cherry-picked rhetoric.

Our nation’s governors must also play a role. As they appoint public university trustees, they can and should mandate training to make university boards responsible to taxpayers and students. I don’t mean to imply that trustees should devote themselves to ritual opposition to presidents, who usually possess an unmatched understanding of the institutions they lead.

But presidents are not infallible.

James V. Koch, a member of the board of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, served as president of the University of Montana and Old Dominion University. Partners for College Affordability sponsors this blog.

This op-ed, published originally in the New York Times, appears with the author’s permission.