Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

Grid Transformation Controversy Shifts to SCC Nominees

The legislative logjam over a controversial electric grid modernization program appears to have broken. The much-modified legislation, backed by Governor Ralph Northam and Virginia investor-owned electric utilities, has passed the House of Delegates and state Senate, and in the estimation of Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Robert Zullo, “could be headed to … Northam’s desk by the end of the week.”

The legislation will enshrine the “investment model” advocated by Dominion Energy Virginia of using rate over-earnings to help pay for building the electric grid of the future, including more solar and wind power, energy efficiency, power-line burial, a pumped-storage facility, a “smart” grid, and hardening against cyber-sabotage and terrorist threats. Opponents say the law could lock in excess utility earnings for years.

Assuming the bills in both houses can be reconciled and enacted into law, the battle between Dominion, Appalachian Power Co. and their detractors won’t be over. The action just moves to the State Corporation Commission. The SCC staff and three judges will hold a series of evidentiary hearings on a long list of proposed investments, and they will balance the broad objectives of affordability, reliability and sustainability when deciding whether to approve the requests. Presumably, they will take into account the declaration of the General Assembly that grid-transformation projects are in the “public interest.”

The SCC judges will have latitude — exactly how much is not clear — to draw their own conclusions. So it very much matters who serves on the commission. And it very much matters who will fill the position to be vacated by Judge James C. Dmitri, who, among the three judges, arguably has been the most critical of the electric utilities.

Yesterday the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee interviewed three candidates to replace Dmitri:

  • C. Meade Browder, Jr., assistant attorney general,
  • David W. Clarke, a Richmond lobbyist representing gas and insurance companies, and
  • Maureen Matsen, legal counsel for Christopher Newport University and a former deputy secretary of natural resources under former Governor Bob McDonnell.

Committee Chair Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, a long-time friend of the electric utilities, made it clear that he wants to see the SCC get with the program. Wagner accused the commission, reports Zullo, of an inability to “see the big picture” because of a narrow focus on electric rates and consumer costs.

Wagner compared the commission to a short-sighted business owner who can hoard money by failing to invest in his company but “will end up going out of business for failing to keep up.

“They take that myopic approach despite many statements, getting more and more bold, from the General Assembly as to what the policy is for the future of Virginia and ensuring that those investor-owned utilities make the necessary investments for the long-term good of all Virginians,” Wagner said.

The SCC judge candidates, who are appointed by the General Assembly, expressed support for the new direction of electricity regulation.

Said Brouder: “I’m aware of your particular interest in that area. … I think any commissioners would work within the regulatory framework that y’all have laid out.”

Said Clarke: “It’s clear to me that the sense of the General Assembly is that we need to have more investment. Those things don’t come without a price tag on them, no question.”

Said Matsen: The commission “needs to be a broader, wider vision” on how it handles “a tremendously dynamic and exciting time for the energy industry.”

“Moderation in the Protection of Liberty is no Virtue”

UVa police respond to disruption of Hoos for Israel event. Photo credit: Cavalier Daily

Last week members of the Brody Jewish Center and Hoos for Israel at the University of Virginia hosted an event entitled, “Building Bridges” to “promote conversation and respectful dialogue between students of different religious and political backgrounds.” It seems like some Wahoos weren’t interested in respectful dialogue. About 10 protesters entered the event in Clark Hall and began chanting pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli slogans. While no violence was reported, Jewish students felt physically intimidated. The demonstration disbanded peacefully, according to the Cavalier Daily.

There are radicals on every campus who disrupt the rights of others to express and hear views the protesters find objectionable. But not every higher-ed institution responds the same to such outbreaks of intolerance.

To UVa’s credit, Dean of Students Allen Groves sent out a university-wide email noting that the protesters violated several university policies, including those on protests and amplified sounds.

The protest, he wrote, “runs counter to our important shared values of respect and intellectual inquiry, and should be firmly rejected. … We can only learn from each other if space exists to exchange ideas freely and without disruption from those with whom we may disagree.”

But was the email missive enough? Allen’s letter strikes me as a timid response. The protesters are as likely to feel emboldened as chastened by such a wrist slap. The defenders of free speech must be as assertive and forceful as those who would violate it.

Yes, Virginia, Faculty Productivity is Quantifiable

Katerina Bodovski

Faculty productivity in higher education is a recurring theme of this blog. It is well established that Virginia colleges and universities pay the highest salaries to faculty members who teach the least, spending their time instead on research, writing, and administrative tasks. My hypothesis, hardly original, is that this trend is getting worse — worse, that is, for the students and taxpayers who pay the bills for higher-ed.

I started my inquiry into the causes of runaway college costs knowing little more than the average citizen, and I’m still going up the learning curve. The following observation, while new to me, might strike some as remarkably naive. But it turns out that the ratio of teaching to non-teaching activities for faculty members is spelled out in contracts. In theory, then, faculty productivity should be readily quantifiable and the hypothesis of declining productivity should be subject to verification or disproof.

In a column published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pennsylvania State University professor Katerina Bodovski describes how she collapsed on the job from overwork. She writes:

My job description stipulates that I should spend 60 percent of my time on research, 30 percent on teaching, and 10 percent on service.

Bodovski is an associate professor, not even a tenured full professor, but her contract calls for her to spend less than one-third of her time teaching. I find that astonishing.

The cause of her physical exhaustion was that the teaching and committee work consumed her life. In the fall semester, she writes, she taught two graduate courses, ran one of her department’s three “programs” (it’s not clear what the program did), served on two committees, completed six manuscript reviews for leading journals, advised six graduate students, and served on 15 graduate committees, providing feedback and writing letters of recommendation. Last fall she wrote close to 40 letters. “Add to that the steady stream of emails I must read and respond to every day.”

I have two reactions. One is that, yeah, she sounds really busy. She’s working a lot more than 40 hours a week. My other reaction is, waaaah. Many people work 60 hours a week, especially when they’re young and working their way up the career ladder. I married one such person. Working your ass off is pretty much a requirement in American society for getting ahead.

Of greater relevance than Bodovsky’s personal plight is this: Are the burdens that Bodovski describes more onerous than they were, say, thirty years ago? Are faculty members expected to engage in more committee work? How much of that work is truly essential, and how much of it consists of academic navel-gazing? Are the teaching duties more onerous? How does the teaching and advising load compare to that of associate professors 30 years ago?

I presume that Virginia’s colleges and universities are structured similarly to Penn State. Pick an institution, any institution. It would be interesting to examine the contracts of all tenure-track faculty and determine how they are directed to apportion their time (even if the contracts do not fully reflect actual practice). How do teaching commitments vary between assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors? And how have those commitment changes over the years? How has faculty productivity evolved over the years?This data is obtainable and quantifiable. Someone should be obtaining and quantifying it.

The Future of Health Care Delivery: Homes not Hospitals

VCU hospital. The future of health care delivery… or the past?

“The days of the hospital, as we know it,” may be numbered,” declares Laura Landro in a Wall Street Journal article today.

In a shift away from their traditional inpatient facilities, health-care providers are investing in outpatient clinics, same-day surgery centers, free-standing emergency rooms and microhospitals, which offer as few as eight beds for overnight stays. They are setting up programs that monitor people 24/7 in their own homes. And they are turning to digital technology to treat and keep tabs on patients remotely from a high-tech hub.

For the most part, the investments in outside treatment are driven by simple economics: Traditional hospital care is too costly and inefficient for many medical issues. Inpatient pneumonia treatment, for example, can cost 15 to 25 times more, yet many low-risk patients who could be safely treated as outpatients are hospitalized, studies have shown.

That’s what’s happening nationally. But I don’t see many signs of it happening here in Virginia. Indeed, when a rural hospital in Patrick County goes out of business, everyone’s instinct is to think about how to revive it so someone else can take it over rather than rethink how health care in a rural county might delivered more effectively and efficiently.

I’m old enough to remember when the Virginia legislature back in the 1980s moved too slowly to deregulate the banking industry. North Carolina got the jump on us, allowing its banks to merge with one another and then acquire out-of-state banks before our banks had a chance to merge, grow and acquire. The Carolina banks ate up the Virginia banks, and the top banking jobs and financial clout shifted from Richmond and Norfolk to Charlotte and Atlanta.

I’m worried that something similar is happening today with the health care sector. The problem is not that Virginia hospitals haven’t merged — to the contrary, huge health care systems have swallowed up competitors in every metropolitan area in the state. The problem is that the General Assembly hews to an outmoded model of the health care industry. By clinging to that model, more appropriate to the 1960s than the 2010s, we run the risk that Virginia healthcare providers will stifle innovation, thwart productivity, and burden the population with an obsolete health care system.

The underlying assumption is that health care should be organized around something called “hospitals,” which are medical complexes in which scores, even hundreds, of medical services are bundled under one roof under common ownership. State policy buttresses this arrangement by requiring providers to obtain a Certificate of Public Necessity (COPN) in order to build a new facility, thus protecting hospitals from competition by free-standing entities. State policy also perpetuates the status quo by allowing nonprofit hospitals to go untaxed, giving them a huge competitive advantage over for-profit competitors organized by physicians or entrepreneurs.

I have long railed against this arrangement without benefit of knowledge of what’s happening in other states. The Wall Street Journal, however, makes it vividly clear how healthcare enterprises in other states are innovating.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to hospitals is that they are germ factories. With the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, any patient entering a hospital runs the risk of infection. Indeed, at any time, reports the WSJ, one in 25 patients in the U.S. is battling a hospital-acquired infection.

It’s also becoming apparent that health care providers often can deliver care at lower cost and better outcomes in independent facilities or at home. Studies, says the WSJ, show that “hospital-level care at home for certain conditions can be provided for 30% to 50% less than inpatient care with fewer complications, lower mortality rates, and higher patient satisfaction.”

Acute care hospitals will always be necessary to deal with medical conditions requiring highly specialized, highly technical, or highly intensive care. But hospitals are clearly not the best setting for chronic or non-intensive conditions.

New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital has developed a hospital-at-home program, HaH-plus, for patents who show up at the emergency room or are referred by primary care physicians. A mobile acute-care team provides staffing, medical equipment, medications and lab tests at home, and is on call around the clock if a condition worsens, says the WSJ. Mount Sinai estimates that nationally, 575,000 cases yearly could qualify for the program. Treating just 20% of them could save Medicare $45 million annually.

Another new concept — potentially well adapted to rural counties — is the microhospital, sometimes referred to as the neighborhood hospital. Typically, says the Journal, 92% of microhospital patients are treated and sent home in an average of 90 minutes, and 8% are admitted overnight for care such as intravenous-medication administration. Says the CEO of Lousiana-based Ochsner Health Systems, 80% of its capital expenditures are going to outpatient clinics. “I don’t see us building new hospitals.”

The primary justification for maintaining COPN in Virginia is that preserving hospitals’ monopoly status enabled them to generate the profits they need to cover charity care, bad debts and money-losing Medicaid. If the General Assembly enacts Medicaid expansion, thus relieving hospitals of a significant charity care/bad debt burden, it will kick the props from under COPN.

I would argue that eliminating COPN would be worth the price of expanding the entitlement state. Competition in Virginia would lead to more innovative healthcare delivery systems. If the health care systems didn’t introduce the innovations, local physicians or out-of-state enterprises would. Potential savings for Virginia patients would run into the billions of dollars.

It’s time for an innovation-driven healthcare system. Let’s do it.

ACP Cost Overrun Could Run to $1 Billion

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, originally estimated to cost about $5 billion to $5.5 billion, now is expected to cost between $6 billion and $6.5 billion. That estimate comes from CEO Lynn Good of Duke Energy, one of the pipeline’s four corporate partners, in a Tuesday earnings call, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“Due to delays and more stringent conditions in the permitting process, ACP now estimates total project costs between $6 (billion) and $6.5 billion,” Good said. A Duke spokesman affirmed that the pipeline still remains “the most competitive of all the options we evaluated in the early planning phases” and that “consumers in the region will realize significant energy cost savings.”

ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby said he could not confirm Good’s estimate. “We’ll have more information to provide with our financial disclosure next week,” he said.

“It’s no surprise that the cost of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline keeps going up,” said Buppert, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Dominion and Duke chose a route with dozens of complex problems through some of the steepest, most undeveloped lands in the Southeast.”

The big question to Virginians is how much, if any, of this added cost will be passed on to rate payers. At some point, Dominion Energy Virginia (a subsidiary of Dominion Energy, which is the managing partner of the pipeline) will have to file with the State Corporation Commission for permission to build its fuel procurement contract into the rate base. The SCC will have to determine whether the costs embedded in the contract were prudently incurred. That hearing ought to be very interesting.

Questions Virginia Tech’s Board Should Be Asking

Thanks to a new state law, Virginia Tech has issued a notice of its intention to raise tuition for the next academic year. At its March 26 meeting, the board of visitors will consider changing undergraduate tuition & fees by between 2.8% and 4.9%.

The university justified cost increases as follows:

While Virginia Tech is often viewed as an excellent value and the university works to continue that value, the board will consider a combination of tuition and fee adjustments to address increasing costs of personnel, fringe benefit rate increases, escalation in fixed costs, investment in academic programs including faculty, and enhancing high demand student support services. Academic investments are designed to help the state meet the needs for graduates in key areas.

To further advance the affordability of a Virginia Tech education, the university is also working to expand private philanthropy and increase student financial aid programs. Student financial aid programs are critical to ensuring the affordability of a Virginia Tech education for all Virginians. …

The university will utilize mandatory non-E&G fee resources to address increasing demand for counseling and health services, transit service, career services, and advanced networking in addition to the other costs listed above.

The recommendations, notes the university statement, “continue a trend of slowing increases in undergraduate tuition and fees and expanded student financial aid, which will help expand access and affordability for Virginia residents at Virginia Tech.”

Inflation over the past 12 months has been 2.1%, so a portion of Tech’s expenses can be attributed to higher costs. However, the state is budgeting a meaningful increase in state support — $7.2 million in fiscal year 2019, or about 3.8%. (State funding numbers are based on former Governor Terry McAuliffe’s proposed budget, and don’t reflect any tweaking by the General Assembly.) In the past, public colleges and universities have blamed cutbacks in state funding for tuition increases.

Raising tuition and fees by the low end of the proposed range, 2.9%, would exceed inflation once again, and it would do so in the face of a fairly generous increase in state funding.

Virginia Tech’s board of trustees can do one of two things: (1) It can rubber stamp the administration’s proposals, adopting whatever recommendations are put in front of them, or (2) it can ask some tough questions.

If I were a board member, here are some questions I would ask:

Has the university increased the number of administrative staff employees over the past year? What’s the head count for staff? What is the costs of salary and benefits? What are the associated expenses, such as office space, travel and the like? How much has the university increased administrative spending over the past year?

What business process changes has the university implemented to reduce administrative spending? What savings have been achieved, and what is being done with the freed-up money? Private businesses are continually looking for ways to shave administrative overhead. How aggressive has Virginia Tech been?

What is the ratio of tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, instructors, and adjunct faculty? What is the average teaching burden of each category? How many classes do the most senior (and most highly paid) faculty members teach? Has faculty teaching productivity increased or decreased over the past year? How has the university deployed technology (computerized learning, distance learning) to bolster teaching productivity? Does the university track any faculty productivity measures?

To what degree is sponsored research subsidized by undergraduate and graduate student tuition? Break out expenditures for university research and explain exactly where the money comes from. If the administration says it’s impossible to determine if undergraduates are subsidizing research or not, ask why that’s so. Isn’t it a basic accounting function to answer basic questions like that?

How efficiently is the university utilizing its buildings and grounds? The budget envisions spending money on building renovations and new buildings. What is the space-to-student ratio at each building? Is the space-to-student ratio for the university increasing or decreasing? Has the university implemented state-of-the-art technology to track and optimize space utilization? Has the university built an unfunded maintenance backlog, or has it kept its buildings in good working order? What are the associated expenses relating to heating, cooling, lighting and other energy costs? How effectively has the university controlled those costs?

How do increases in room and board (which account for roughly half of the cost of attendance) compare to increases in the Consumer Price Index? Universities are engaged in an amenities arms race. Students from affluent students can pay the costs; students from poor families must borrow heavily. How do Virginia Tech room-and-board charges compare to other universities?

What has the university done, if anything, to rein in the cost of textbooks Textbooks typically cost students more than $1,000 a year, making them a significant contributor to the overall cost of attendance)?

Finally, a general question: What has the university done to make attendance more affordable — not just for lower-income students by increasing financial aid (in part by raising tuition higher for others) — but for all students?

Virginia Tech’s board is loaded with intelligent men and women who have achieved success in their professional careers. Serving on the Virginia Tech board is one of the most important civic contributions they’ll ever make to the Commonwealth. They owe it to the public to dig deep, demand answers to the kinds of questions they would ask in their own businesses, and keep the university’s top executives accountable.

Board members must always remember that university presidents, and provosts, and the rest of the academic establishment have their own imperatives — the first and foremost of which is increasing the prestige of the university — that may conflict with the interests of students, parents and taxpayers. If board members don’t hold university administrators accountable to the people paying the bills, then the only people who have the power to do so are the politicians. And if the politicians begin micro-managing higher ed, we could all rue the results.

For photos and bios of all 14 board members, click here.

More Facts, Less Alarmism, Please, Regarding Offshore Drilling

Coal Oil Point in California

I don’t know much about offshore drilling for oil and gas. But, then, I’m not sure that many vociferous opponents of drilling off the Virginia coast know much about it either.

A case in point is a quote, reported in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, by Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-4th:

As we learned from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, accidents can be unimaginably destructive, devastating the marine environment, wrecking entire industries and potentially affecting the health of local residents.

McEachin said he would resist offshore drilling “every step of the way.”

Yes, Deepwater Horizon was an environmental disaster. But is that catastrophe a useful comparison for offshore drilling in Virginia? Deepwater Horizon was drilling a deep exploratory well at a depth of about 5,100 feet. The drilling took place in conditions of massive water pressure that would be absent on the continental shelf of the Virginia coast where the average water depth is about 200 feet.

An appropriate comparison would be with offshore drilling operations taking place on the continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico. According to LiveScience, 1.3 million gallons of petroleum are spilled into U.S. waters from vessels and pipelines in a typical year. Between 1971 and 2000, U.S. Outer Continental Shelf offshore facilities and pipelines accounted for only 2 percent of the volume of oil spilled in U.S. waters.

Compare that to the volume of oil that naturally seeps from the seafloor. A single seep, Coal Oil Point on the California coast, releases about 10,000 gallons per day — about 3.6 million barrels yearly — according to the Stop Oil Seeps California website. Has that turned the coastline into an ecological disaster zone?

Here’s what the Coal Oil Point Reserve website has to say about the wildlife there:

One of the best remaining examples of a coastal-strand environment in Southern California, the Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve protects a wide variety of coastal and estuarine habitats. Largely undisturbed coastal dunes support a rich assemblage of dune vegetation and rare wildlife, including the dune spider, the globose dune beetle and the threatened Western Snowy Plover. …

Thousands of migratory birds visit throughout the year. Coal Oil Point Reserve is part of Audubon’s Important Bird Area (IBA) and it is visited daily by birders. …

Vernal pools host a number of rare and endemic species.  At low tide, the intertidal and subtidal zones at the reserve provide an opportunity to observe the rich assemblage of invertebrates and algae living on the rock formations.

Not exactly a toxic hellhole.

The conditions in Virginia are not the same as in California; they aren’t the same as in the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe a sober-minded analysis would show that offshore drilling would pose a genuine threat to Virginia’s precious coastal environment. I await that study. In the meantime, I’m not paying much heed to politician’s heated rhetoric regarding topics about which they know nothing.

Who Needs a Car, or Bus, When You’ve Got Uber?

The Uber revolution keeps on churning. The transportation service company has finally rolled out a service in the Washington region that resembles the kind of ride-hailing jitney service that I long predicted eventually would enter the marketplace. This service is potentially so disruptive that it could drive public mass transit out of the market for all but the highest-volume transportation corridors — although Uber denies that such is its aim.

From the Washington Post:

Beginning Wednesday … riders will be directed to pickup points within two blocks of their origin and dropped off within two blocks of their destinations, according to Uber. Riders will endure a slightly longer wait for a driver match — up to two minutes — while Uber works to place them along the optimal route. They then will be instructed where to catch their ride.

The perk for riders? Discounted trips. Express Pool is up to 50 percent cheaper than ride-splitting option UberPool and 75 percent cheaper than UberX, the door-to-door ride-hailing service, Uber says.

Finding rides won’t be a problem. Uber has 50,000 active drivers in the Washington region.

Hopefully, local governments will not throw roadblocks in Uber’s way to protect their local transit authorities. Rather, they should ask themselves what they can do to make the service operate more efficiently. In particular, they should proactively brainstorm with Uber to see how to make it easy for riders to congregate at loading spots and for Uber drivers to access them without blocking traffic.

This Bitcoin Mania Is out of Control

If you don’t understand how to mine bitcoin, try reading this Wall Street Journal graphic. You still won’t understand, but at least you’ll have tried. (Click for larger image.)

If people want to invest in bitcoin, or invent competing cryptocurrencies, or dedicate their computers to “mining” bitcoin by solving computationally difficult puzzles, well, it’s a free country and they can do what they want. As a political-policy commentator, I would never advocate banning such endeavors. As a social commentator, I am moved to ask, are these people out of their minds? What a socially useless activity.

As a economic-development commentator,  however, I must cheer the initiative of Frederick Grede, Michael Adolphe, and other principals of Bcause, a company that aspires to become the largest bitcoin mining operation in North America. The Virginia Beach-based company has raised $5 million in funding led by Japanese financial-services firm SBI Holdings and plans to raise more.

A Wall Street Journal article today describes how Michael Poteat, an engineering student at Old Dominion University, started mining bitcoin four months ago. He purchased 20 “mining rigs,” computers that solve complex equations to generate new coins. The 20-year-old kept tripping the circuit breaker in his house, and he struggled to find a place to accommodate his operations. “It’s just difficult as an individual to handle all the logistics,” he says.

Then Poteat came across Bcause, which provides the infrastructure, security, and electricity to enable large-scale bitcoin mining.  The WSJ elaborates:

Bitcoin miners are rewarded with new coins and transaction fees for performing the calculations that make the bitcoin network tick. The more valuable a bitcoin is, the greater the incentive to start mining. But the more miners who participate, the more computations are needed to earn rewards.

The process can be expensive and cumbersome, requiring specialized hardware and large amounts of power. Such challenges have long prompted miners to share space and resources. Now, companies that harbor mining equipment are fielding more requests than ever. …

Bcause is one of the firms that have sprung up to cater to aspiring bitcoin miners. In an old beverage warehouse in Virginia Beach, the start up is running thousands of rigs for clients from the U.S. to Asia. … Bcause has contracts with clients to house about 60,000 mining rigs and will serve retail clients by renting out spare machines, a process known as “cloud mining.” It has about 5,000 machines up and running, and plans to outfit another site in eastern Pennsylvania.

The profitability of mining bitcoin hinges on the cost of buying the mining rigs — the Antminer S9 is the most popular — electricity, and, of course, the price of bitcoin. Right now, despite a recent slide, the price is still high by historical standards, and bitcoin mining is said to be “insanely profitable.”

As a hosting service, Bcause says it is insulated from price volatility because it doesn’t invest in the mining equipment or the cryptocurrency itself. However, it does plan to build out a one-stop shop for trading bitcoin, including a clearinghouse, and derivatives exchanges.

I confess: I don’t get it. I don’t understand what bitcoin is good for, other than as a vehicle for maniacal speculation. I don’t understand how bitcoin mining works. Maybe there is some social utility from all this fevered activity, but maybe we’re just bystanders to the 21st tech-economy answer to the 17th-century Dutch tulip bulb mania. Will bitcoin become the Next Big Thing, like the Internet, that will revolutionize commercial transactions and transform our lives? I don’t know. Will it crash and burn? I don’t know.

Peter Diamandis, serial tech entrepreneur and founder of the X Prize Foundation, spoke at the Richmond Forum earlier this month. He made the case that technological change is accelerating, driven by the geometric increase in computational power and the growing capabilities of Artificial Intelligence. A colleague of Ray Kurzweil, the author who coined the phrase, “The Singularity,” Diamandis said that technology is rapidly approaching escape velocity in which change will no longer be in human hands. So, yeah, it won’t be long before the robots take over.

Curse you, bitcoin!

In a world in which all the rules are changing, how do we know what to do? Will our skills and knowledge be worth anything a decade or two? What will happen to our pension funds and personal investments as half the companies in any given portfolio is disrupted and rendered worthless? Will there be any work to do, or will robots do it all for us? Will there be any purpose or meaning to human existence?

More Data to Inform the UVa Seminar on Race

Earlier this week I asked, “Will UVa Provide the Data Needed for an Open Discussion about Race?” The University of Virginia is organizing a seminar to instruct faculty members about the history of race locally and nationally and current issues relating to health, educational and economic disparities. On the assumption that seminar participants will examine UVa’s role in race relations, I humbly suggested a few data points that should be considered.

I lacked hard data on several topics that I thought worth examining. But I have since been directed by a friendly source to two data sets. The first tells us the net price paid to attend the University of Virginia, broken down by income range. Net price takes the list price and deducts all sources of federal aid (Pell grants primarily), state assistance, and institutional assistance. The table above, taken from the College Navigator database maintained by the National Center for Educational Statistics, provides that information for UVa.

Entering full-time students from poor families (making less than $30,000 per year) paid an average net price of $9,463 in the 2015-16 school year to attend UVa. Students from affluent families (making more than $110,101) paid almost three times as much — $27,814. UVa kids from poor families pay considerably less than poor kids at, say, Norfolk State University, where the net tuition works out to $13,952.

How is that relevant to a discussion of race? Insofar as black students are statistically more likely than whites and Asians to come from poor families, they benefit disproportionately from UVa’s financial aid system. If we’re talking about the persistence of institutional racism at UVa, then a highly relevant data point is how much members of different racial/ethnic groups actually pay to attend. (College Navigator does not break down financial aid by race, but UVa undoubtedly has that information.)

A second data set tells us how likely African-Americans are to graduate from UVa within six years. I had speculated on the basis of incomplete information that the differential was about 6 or 7 percentage points. In fact, the disparity is only 4 percentage points.

Percentage of Full-time, First-time Students Who Began Their Studies in Fall 2010 and Received a Degree or Award Within 150% of “Normal Time” to Completion for Their Program

We can look at this data in two ways. If we adopted the approach of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s research on mortgage loan discrimination (See “Racism, Racism, Everywhere You Look“), we would emphasize that African-Americans are almost twice as likely as whites (9% compared to 5%) to drop out. Sounds like institutional racism to me! On the other hand, we could emphasize that African-Americans are only 4.4% less likely to graduate than whites. Sounds like African-Americans thrive at UVa!

One could dig even deeper, comparing the graduation rates of whites, Asians, Hispanics, and African-Americans within the same income ranges. That would filter out the effects of socio-economic advantage and disadvantage.

To my mind, these data help provide a starting point for an honest, open discussion about race at UVa. We could broaden the conversation by developing comparable data for all public institutions of higher education in Virginia and by comparing UVa’s performance to that of other colleges and universities.

Will these data become part of the dialogue, or do the organizers of the seminar have some other approach in mind? I have no idea. But I would love to be a fly on the wall to find out.