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.
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