Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

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.

Dominion Closes Nine Obsolete Generating Units

The Bremo Power Station on the James River opened as a coal-fired power plant in 1931. Units 3 and 4 were converted to gas in 2003. Now they will revert to cold reserve storage.

As Dominion Energy Virginia continues to adapt its generating fleet to the realities of cheaper solar and abundant natural gas, the utility has decided to mothball nine of its older, less efficient power-generating units — all but one of them either coal-fired or converted from coal to gas. Because the units rarely run, they provide only one percent of the company’s current generation, reports the Associated Press.

As part of a month-long review of its power generation group initiated to increase its competitive position in the energy market, Dominion also decided to eliminate about 390 positions, including about 100 from its nuclear operations. The company expects many employees will be reassigned to other operations.

“When we look at the time, the materials, the people, when we look at the thermal inefficiency of these plants, and we look at the advancement of renewables, we look at continued gas-fired build, we just think this is a progressive step we can take to ensure that our fleet remain competitive,” said Paul Koonce, president and CEO of the power generation division.

In technical language, Dominion is putting the nine units in “cold reserve storage,” in which they are drained of oil and water, provided minimal staffing to ensure that they remain safe, and are capable of being restarted in about six months if market conditions warrant. Dominion will maintain all environmental permits and continue to pay local taxes.

Most of the units — those at the Bremo, Chesterfield, and Possum Point power stations — were commissioned in the 1950s and early 1960s. One, a combined-cycle gas unit at the Bellemeade power station was constructed in 1990. All told, they were capable of producing 1,200 megawatts of electricity, roughly comparable to a new, state-of-the-art gas-fired power plant.

In a handout, Dominion said the shutdowns reflected the changing economics of electric power industry:

  • Economics. Natural gas prices remain historically low, and forecasts call for supplies to remain plentiful. Gas and renewables have displaced coal and older, smaller gas units. And the cost to build large-scale solar has dropped 90% in the past six years.
  • Public policy. Virginia is considering policies that would mandate a 3% annual reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions over ten years, which would rule out running the older, inefficient power units even as a backup.
  • Technology. Energy efficiencies such as LEDs, EnergyStar appliances, and LEED certification are impacting demand across PJM Interconnection, which administers wholesale energy markets for a multi-state region. New round-the-clock generation technologies, such as those in the new Greensville County power station, are significantly more efficient than older-generation gas units.

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.

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*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.

Tarheel Coal Ash Data Could Inform Virginia Debate

Coal ash at the Chesterfield Power Station. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Last week I argued that Virginians need more information about the disposal costs and health risks associated with coal ash ponds before the General Assembly rushes ahead with a law requiring Virginia’s electric utilities to recycle and/or landfill their coal ash. Some of that data could come from the experience of Duke Energy in North Carolina as well as utilities in South Carolina, which are farther along in the process than Dominion Energy Virginia.

Travis Fain, a former Daily Press reporter who has moved on to WRAL.com, reported yesterday how Duke Energy has blasted its opponents in a regulatory filing, asserting that they leaned on “simplistic crutches,” false analysis, and a Pollyanna hindsight to argue against the company’s bid to raise electricity rates sufficient to cover its coal as clean-up costs. Duke Energy’s foes have some not-so-nice things to say about the utility, too. The bottom line for Virginia is that political and regulatory facets of the coal-ash controversy are further along in North Carolina than they are in the Old Dominion. Many of the same issues are likely to surface here, and economic data from the Tarheel State could illuminate our debate.

Writes Fain:

The company complied with existing laws and industry standards when it left wet ash in unlined pits for decades, they said. At one point “the lack of a liner was considered a feature, rather than a flaw” because soil would filter out contaminants, the company said. Impact on groundwater wasn’t initially a concern “because the ash basins were built more than a decade before the adoption of any federal or state regulation related to groundwater corrective action,” attorneys argued.

That same commission will decide now whether Duke Energy Progress shareholders or its customers will cover the majority of costs for a cleanup that has since been ordered by changes in state and federal law. Between Duke Energy Progress and its sister company, Duke Energy Carolinas, parent Duke Energy has asked for more than $1 billion a year in increases. …

“They fault the Company for not doing something that no one was doing, but at the same time washing their hands of any responsibility of paying for that which they – in 20/20 hindsight – wish the Company had done,” the utility’s brief states. …

The Attorney General’s Office referenced to a number safety reports, including an inspector who found “open cracks” and other problems in safety features at the H.F. Lee Plant in Goldsboro in 1999. That inspector returned in 2004 to note that “those same problems had not been repaired and still existed,” the Attorney General’s Office said.

If Duke had been proactive, cleanup costs “would have been far less than the costs are now and will be in the future,” the Attorney General’s Office said. …

The Public Staff also proposed that Duke Energy Progress split coal ash cleanup costs 50-50 with customers, something the company rejected.

Coal ash cleanup costs alone would add nearly $183 million a year to customer bills under Duke Energy Progress’ proposal.

Dominion has said it would cost roughly $4.5 billion to landfill all the coal ash at its Bremo, Possum Point, and Chesterfield plants. Dominion foes have charged that its estimates are inflated because the utility could reduce its costs by recycling coal ash into cement, bricks and pavers. Basically, we have a he-said, she-said situation. Although both Dominion and the Southern Environmental Law Center have hired consulting engineers, no non-aligned third party has weighed in with a judgment.

One obvious step, it seems to me, would be to compare Dominion’s situation to Duke Energy’s. Duke Energy says the cleanup will cost $183 million a year. It’s not clear how many years we’re talking about — likely 15 at least, maybe longer. If so, that implies a total cost of  between $3 billion to $4 billion. As I recall, Duke Energy has to remove more tonnage than Dominion, so its removal costs per ton are likely lower than Dominion’s estimates.

However, it is dangerous to make simplistic comparisons. Costs vary widely power station by power station, depending upon a number of factors, and direct comparisons may or may not be appropriate. Furthermore, the properties of coal ash vary, and Duke Energy’s material could be more, or less, suitable for recycling. Finally, Duke Energy has first-mover advantage in recycling its coal ash. Its coal ash will flood the Mid-Atlantic market, arguably depressing prices and making the recycling option less attractive to Dominion.

The article hardly answers all the questions one might have, but it seems clear that we are talking about disposal costs in the billions of dollars. Whether recycling/landfilling is an economical option in Virginia remains to be seen. Hopefully, the General Assembly won’t pass law in the absence of authoritative information.

Senate Committee Spikes Bill to End Electric Freeze, Promises Comprehensive Reform

Sen. Chap Peterson. Photo credit: Associated Press

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee today killed a bill championed by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, that would have ended the freeze on base electric rates, restored State Corporation Commission (SCC) control over rate setting, and enabled the refund of hundreds of millions of dollars in electric utility profits to rate payers.

Senate leaders said that they are working on legislation that will direct the long-term future of the electric utility industry, subsuming the regulatory topics that Peterson’s would address. “There will be a larger conversation that will take place in the next week,” said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg.

Peterson has pushed for a return to the regulatory regime that existed before 2015 when the General Assembly, worried about the potential impact of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, enacted a freeze on base rates and canceled biennial SCC reviews. Peterson contends that Dominion Energy Virginia has earned excess profits of more than $400 million. Moreover, the new federal tax law will reduce Dominion’s tax bill by $150 million a year. His bill will protect rate payers, he said. “This is not an environmental bill. It’s not a pro-business bill. It’s a pro-ratepayer bill.”

Sen. Frank Wagner. Photo credit: Helment2Helmet

However, Committee Chair Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, said the legislature needs to consider rate regulation in the context of building an electric transmission/distribution system that can accommodate more solar power and keep the grid secure and resilient. Virginia needs to upgrade its grid, he said. “We’re not there — we’re not even close to where we need to be.”

About a dozen speakers mainly representing consumer, environmental and business-customer interests spoke in favor of Petersen’s bill.

In remarks typical of those who supported Petersen, Sam Towell, with the office of consumer council for the Attorney General’s office, argued that Virginia should return oversight of the electric power companies to SCC judges who have the staff and expertise to review complex regulatory issues. “If the rates are too high, as they currently are, the SCC should have the authority to lower them,” he said. “If utilities make prudent investments, they should have the opportunity to recover their investments with a fair rate of return.”

Another advantage of SCC oversight, said Louis Monacell, an attorney representing the Virginia Committee for Fair Utility Rates, is that the public hearings allow for the production of documents and questioning of experts. In contrast to Dominion with its army of lobbyists, who meet with legislators and aides in settings where people don’t have a chance to challenge their assertions, he said, “the SCC bases its decisions on an open record.”

Norment said he was “taken aback” at the insinuation that legislators aren’t getting all viewpoints. “How can you stand there and tell me that your voices are not being heard?”

Dominion has a far greater financial interest in the outcome of the legislative process and can afford to hire more lawyers, lobbyists and experts, responded Monacell.

“We think the consumers do have an articulate voice,” as evidenced by the number of speakers at the hearing, said Norment. “And now they have an Attorney General who is serving their interests more than ever before.”

As Virginians ponder how to restructure the electric utility industry, said Wagner, the General Assembly needs to transcend the “myopic,” two-year time horizon of the SCC and adopt a longer-term perspective.

“It’s very clear that the Clean Power Plan is not moving forward,” Wagner said. “We have a degree of certainty that we didn’t have three years ago. This is the time to go back to a re-regulated environment.” Still, the General Assembly sets the broad parameters for energy policy. Solar is competitive now with every other form of electricity. Decisions must be made how best to integrate it into the grid without throwing off frequency and voltage, while also protecting the grid against a range of threats from hurricanes to cyber-sabotage, he said.

“We have huge changes coming,” said Wagner, echoing many of the same points that Dominion executives raised last month when announcing their openness to end the rate freeze.  “More electric vehicles, more batteries, more storage, more generation at the [local] level. …. We need to look a decade down the road.”

Update: An earlier version of this post said that the Committee “tabled” Petersen’s bill. In fact, committee members voted to “pass by indefinitely,” which I am informed is legislative jargon for killing the bill. I have rewritten the article to correct the mistake.

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.

A New Generation of Fuzzy Thinkers for Henrico

Henrico County has flipped from a majority-Republican to a majority-Democrat board of supervisors. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending. If Democrats nudge the county toward more rational, Smart Growth-like land use patterns — more infill, more density, more mixed use, more walkability — it could be a good thing. If they push the county into ill-thought-out spending initiatives, it could be a bad thing.

Based on the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s coverage of a two-day board retreat, it looks like spending will top the list. The three Democratic members of the board indicated their desire to expand the GRTC (Greater Richmond Transit Company) Route 19 to the Short Pump retail center at an estimated cost of $800,000 annually.

The purported benefit is greater access for job seekers. Tyrone E. Nelson, representing the Varina district at the east end of the county, said he could not understand why a county with a budget of nearly $1 billion had not yet devoted funds to bring bus service to the employment center. “I still don’t understand why it’s like pulling teeth to get public transportation to Short Pump. This is a 2018 need.”

His fellow Democrats expressed the same sentiment. “We’re not doing enough for job access,” said newly elected Courtney Lynch. “When you look at things we should spend money on, this should be something where we can get creative and get things done.”

Democrats and Republicans alike can agree that helping people gain access to jobs is a worthy goal. We want people to work so they can support themselves and their families. In Henrico County, the poorest residents tend to live in the far east end of the county, far from the affluent Short Pump commercial district where many jobs are available. GRTC already runs buses out Broad Street to Costco, and the expansion would extend the service a few miles more at seemingly modest cost.

That makes sense as a starting point for an inquiry: Hey, extending the bus line just a couple miles more would provide passengers access to a whole bunch of jobs they can’t reach now. Let’s take a closer look and see if it makes economic sense. From what I glean from the Times-Dispatch article and county documents, however, the supervisors skipped that let’s-see-if-it-makes-economic-sense step.

Henrico County Public Works has posted a slide presentation online covering proposed investments in roads, highways, sidewalks, bike trails, and mass transit. The slides contain a lot of information, but not everything that we, as citizens need to reach an informed conclusion. Perhaps the speaker making the slide presentation had more to say about the economics of bus service, but there is no indication of it in the Times-Dispatch article.

Let’s start with the map at atop this post. The big blue circle on the right is Mr. Nelson’s supervisor district. The small blue circle on the left is the Short Pump employment center. To get there, Nelson’s job-seeking constituents must take the bus into downtown Richmond where they would transfer to another bus running out to Short Pump.

The first question is how many passengers avail themselves of the bus service to access retail and service jobs along Broad Street at present? One hundred a day? A thousand? Ten thousand? Presumably, existing passenger loads would give us an order-of-magnitude idea of what might be expected if we extended the line. Alas, existing passenger numbers are not provided.

The more pertinent question is how many additional passengers are projected to avail themselves of the bus service going all the way to Short Pump. Again, in orders of magnitude, are we walking about 100 passengers, 1,000, or 10,000? This would seem to be a critical matter because, if the new service costs $800,000 a year to operate to benefit 100 passengers daily, we’re talking about an annual subsidy of $8,000 per passenger — an extraordinary sum. Why not just buy each passenger a new car? If we’re talking about benefiting 10,000 passengers, then the subsidy is only $80 per passenger, a nominal sum in which the social and tax benefits clearly outweigh the expenditure. If we’re talking about something in between, then the decision is not so clear.

As always, we should ask if there are alternative expenditures of money that would yield greater social benefits. Eight hundred thousand dollars is a nice chunk of change. I were a supervisor representing Nelson’s district, I would convene a meeting of GRTC, Uber, Lyft, Bridj, and other transportation-service companies and ask them, what kind of service could you provide my constituents for $800,000 worth of subsidies? Could you provide more point-to-point service providing more convenient schedules and shorter travel times, making it even easier to make the trip and find a job? Can you come up with a more imaginative solution than simply extending the existing bus schedule?

When such basic questions go unasked, we can be assured that money will be ill spent. Truly, Henrico has entered a new era — from one in which it made lousy land use decisions to one in which it will make lousy spending decisions.