What Does SCHEV Do? More than You Think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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8 responses to “What Does SCHEV Do? More than You Think.

  1. You KNOW…. a contrary ..cynic type might ask if you’re view would change if we switched the name SCHEV with COPN or COE or FERC…

    😉

    • Haha, Larry. You might have a point…. if SCHEV took three-and-a-half years to approve a new program!

    • Hmm — had the same reaction, with all this talk about “certificate of need” restrictions on the right of entry into certain lines of business, restrictions on competition and innovation and market-oriented services to the public, what’s SCHEV doing that makes it exempt from the same criticism? Uh oh, LG and I agreed on something . . . .

  2. One of SCHEV’s missions is to keep costs at public institutions of higher ed under control. Excess costs get passed on either to taxpayers or students in the form of tuition increases. That’s the justification.

    Would we be better off if schools could launch and shut down academic programs at will? I don’t know. It would be interesting to see what happens at for-profit institutions and private non-profits. Do they do any better?

    In theory, I would argue that colleges should be free to operate with minimum outside supervision. Let them make their own decisions and pay for their own mistakes. The question gets prickly, however, because the higher-ed marketplace does not resemble a true free market. Virginia taxpayer subsidize tuition and Uncle Sam underwrites limitless student loans. I have to think this through.

    • You mention cost control. “But does it actually have any power, my friend persisted.” Both are thought provoking questions. Imposition of cost and efficiency or “waste” controls, by the government in lieu of the marketplace, is the usual rationale for a ‘certificate of public necessity’ or COPN — that is, where the government fixes the prices or rates (and essentially guarantees the income) on a cost-plus basis the government has a duty to keep those costs under control. I’m thinking COPNs for traditional taxis, and hospitals, in addition to utilities, but not the hair-stylists’ ‘professional licensing’ kind.

      Here, as you say, “the higher-ed marketplace does not resemble a true free market. Virginia taxpayers subsidize tuition and Uncle Sam underwrites limitless student loans.” Now, let’s see. The demand for undergraduate higher ed. in Virginia is relatively predictable and unresponsive to price because (a) getting a college degree is not really an option for most who attend, and (b) those government loans cushion the blow as tuition and fees increase and parents start to panic. Not sure the taxpayer subsidies have done anything but make access more affordable, thus moving the demand needle more towards “high,” and that effect was mainly post-war and is baked in these days and to an extent is being withdrawn.

      If we turned the colleges loose to “operate with minimum outside supervision” we see recent suggestions that to satisfy undergrad consumers they would create luxury dorms and food services and light teaching loads and lots of courses taught by “adjunct” professors, yet increase undergrad tuitions and fees even beyond those bloated undergrad costs in order to set aside “slush funds” to ramp up reputations, attract star faculty with embarrassingly light teaching loads, and expand research and graduate programs with profit-making potential (like hospitals and licenseable biology) and potential profit centers like masters of sports management programs. Or so it seems.

      Now all of this may mean I’ve listened too much to RF and the wrong UVa board faction, but your question restated is, what can the existence of SCHEV do about this? To which the answer seems to be: if SCHEV can really delve into the finances of these schools and reveal what they find and put SCHEV screws to the bloating and the reallocation and the non-core enterprises if that’s what they find, maybe they can make a real cost-control difference; but if they merely have the authority to sign off on the occasional new academic program of a marginal nature, that’s window-dressing. I submit they should weigh demanding a broader role or getting out of the way entirely rather than giving the public the false impression its interests are protected by COPN-style SCHEV “oversight” — when they aren’t.

      Questions to ponder.

    • A footnote: you’ve already said the SCHEV’s powers were expanded this year, and they are “far from toothless.” I’m not impugning them in any way. But your friend’s question is important: can they really delve into the meat of what is troubling so many of us?

      • That’s what I’m trying to find out — how deep does SCHEV (or other state agencies like the Department of Planning and Budget, the Senate Finance Committee, the House Finance Committee) dig into the numbers? I’ve got a whole new bureaucratic maze to learn to navigate.

  3. “But at least one will give the Council a significant role in economic development: developing the Commonwealth Research and Technology Strategic Roadmap. This planning tool will identify research areas worthy of economic development and institutional focus. Priority projects will receive grants from a $2.8 million funding round this year from the Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund.”

    Please look at the SCHEV board members and tell me which ones are qualified to do this. Lots of gray hair, lots of bankers, lots of men with initials before their names (a la J. Edgar Hoover). Based on their resumes on the web site I see only one board member who I might hire as a mid level analyst in the technology company where I work.

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