Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

Is Mo’ Money the Solution to the STEM Job Shortage?

Governor Ralph Northam. Photo credit: Daily Progress

Speaking at the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Governor Ralph Northam enumerated the main challenges he sees for Virginia’s business environment: diversifying regional economies, creating more opportunity in rural communities, providing dedicated funding for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and reforming state taxes and regulatory structures. Reports the Daily Progress:

The Democratic governor tied most of these problems to two solutions — well-funded schools at all levels and Medicaid expansion, arguing the federal Medicaid funding would allow more state money to be spent in other areas.

“We need to diversify our economy by understanding what the jobs of the 21st century are,” Northam said, citing biotechnology, data collection and data analysis.

“We do that through having excellent colleges and universities that are affordable to all Virginians, but also through supporting and marketing community colleges,” he said. “There are thousands of good, high-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year education.”

Medicaid expansion might pay for itself, but let’s just say I’m skeptical that it will actually save the state money. How many other states that have enacted Medicaid expansion make the claim that they have freed up spending for other priorities? But that’s a side issue.

Of greater interest is Northam’s observation that there are “thousands of good high-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year education.” He is absolutely right about that. He seems to be suggesting — although it’s not entirely clear — that Virginia needs to spend more money to help ameliorate the problem.

As Bacon’s Rebellion readers know, I tend to be skeptical that waving the magic money wand fixes many problems. I’d like to see an analysis of why Virginia’s educational/workforce training system has been unable to meet the demand for STEM jobs.

It is widely known, for example, that there are widespread job shortages in the IT sector. One plausible explanation is limited teaching capacity — there just aren’t enough college and university courses in which to enroll, and existing classes are so full to the brim that would-be IT practitioners are being turned away. Is that, in fact, so?

If there is a capacity shortage, why is there a shortage? Are colleges, universities and even for-profit career schools too dim-witted to see the business opportunity and expand the course offerings? Or, alternatively, do they see the opportunities but are having trouble recruiting instructors to staff the courses?

What if the supply of students is the problem? It is widely acknowledged that STEM programs have high drop-out rates because many American students can’t handle the work. What if the problem is that high schools are not preparing students for college-level STEM work? What if American students don’t have the self-discipline to perform demanding work with right-and-wrong answers?

Finally, what kind of workforce credentials are needed to fill these STEM jobs? Do employers crave workers with certifications that can be obtained at community colleges or for-profit career schools? Or do they need employees with B.A.-, M.A.-, or Ph.D.-level degrees obtainable only through advanced programs? Presumably, both are needed. But what is the proper mix? If more funding is the answer, what is the proper distribution between community colleges and four-year institutions?

I’ve not seen any of this analysis. And I have no confidence that we truly understand the nature of the problem or how best to invest public dollars. Virginia doesn’t have the luxury of throwing dollars at problems we don’t understand. We need to act upon hard evidence, not conjecture.

Virginia Tech Tuition & Fee Increase: 2.9%

The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors have voted to raise tuition and fees 2.9% — the 17th straight year of increases. In-state undergraduates will pay an additional $390 per year, reports the Roanoke Times.

In other action, the board voted to construct a $15.2 million student-athlete performance center funded by an anonymous donation, to allocate $10 million to an ACC Network television studio, and to spend $3.2 million to renovate the Commonwealth Ballroom in the Squires Student Center.

By way of comparison: The Consumer Prince Index increased 2.2% over the past 12 months.

How the U.S. News Ranking Skews University Behavior

Data source: U.S. News & World-Report 2018 Best Colleges

And here they are, the rankings that everybody loves to hate… the U.S. News & World-Report 2018 Best Colleges ranking.

There are numerous other rankings, but the U.S. News publication seems to carry the most clout. I list the rankings here not so much as an objective indicator of the quality of Virginia’s 15 four-year institutions of public education but as a gauge of their relative prestige. Prestige matters because the endless quest for status is one of the primary drivers of college and university priorities and spending.

The aspiration to higher rankings, hence greater prestige, is an endless treadmill. While Virginia’s public institutions strive to climb the ladder, so is every other college and university, both public and private. It’s difficult to rise in the rankings when every other institution in the country is trying to do the same.

Many institutions game the system by applying scarce funds to line items that influence the ranking metrics. Accordingly, it is especially useful to see what U.S. News counts and how institutions might invest resources to improve their scores.

Graduation and retention rates (22.5 percent). U.S. News gives 80% of this measure to the six-year graduation rate and 20% to the first-year retention rate. One can predict that institutions will invest resources to create programs that will influence both of these metrics. Likewise, one can predict that a disproportionate share of resources will be devoted to improving the first-year retention rate.

Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5 percent): U.S. News uses two measures here: academic peer ratings and high school counselor ratings. These are purely subjective, of course. One cannot help but wonder the degree to which the high school counselor ratings are influenced by… previous U.S. News & World-Report rankings. I would hypothesize that institutions intent upon improving their rankings would make efforts to increase visibility among high school counselors. Likewise, I would expect colleges to invest in recruiting star faculty who might bring renown to the institution.

Faculty resources (20 percent): Class size accounts for 40% of this measure. The most points are given to classes with fewer than 20 students, a decreasing number of points are given to classes with 20-29, 30-39, and 40-49, and no points are awarded for classes over 50. I would hypothesize that institutions would respond to this incentive by structuring class sizes to admit the maximum number of students within one of U.S. News‘s brackets. Thus, we would expect to see many more classes enrolling, say, 19 students than 20 students because 19-student classes earn more points under the U.S. News methodology than 20-student classes.

Student selectivity (12.5 percent): Two of the three metrics used in this category are average SAT score and acceptance rate. I would hypothesize that colleges and universities dedicate considerable resources to recruiting high-SAT students, and also that they also dedicate resources to ginning up lots of applications in order to generate the best possible acceptance rate to foster the image of popularity and selectivity. Also, one would expect institutions to dedicate resources to the kinds of assets — newer buildings, cushier dormitories, better food choices — that provide a quick, visceral appeal to high school students visiting campus.

Financial resources (10 percent): U.S. News rewards average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditure. It does not count spending on sports, dorms and hospitals. One would expect universities to adjust their accounting classification of expenses to maximize spending in the favored buckets. Among wealthier institutions, I would predict, there is no practical limit to money spent on student “enrichment” programs such as semesters abroad.

Graduation rate performance (7.5 percent): Adjusting for SAT scores, high school standing, and Pell Grants, U.S. News measures the difference between “expected” and actual graduation rates. If the school’s actual graduation rate is higher than the predicted rate, the college deemed to be enhancing achievement and over-performing. This strikes me as a useful measure, and one that is not easily gamed. I would love to see the data.

Alumni giving rate (5 percent): The percentage of alumni who donate to school is used as an indirect measure of student satisfaction. Of course, this is easily gamed. I would hypothesize that we will see greater resources and creativity expended over time to solicit donations. Even small donations will enhance an institution’s ranking..

What Is a College Degree Worth?

Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan doesn’t just think outside the box when it comes to higher education. He stomps on the box and mashes it into the ground.

How much of what college students learn in class do they retain later in life?

Remarkably little, says Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University. And thereupon lies a tale with massive implications for higher education policy in Virginia and nationally.

Students are subject to “fade out,” the diminishing memory of facts, figures, theories, and languages learned in the classroom that receive no reinforcement in life after school. The fact is, the vast majority of what students learn — whether history, English lit, psychology, calculus, French, or astronomy — is irrelevant to their workplace preoccupations as employees, and it is soon forgotten.

In other words, argues Caplan in his book, “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time,” from a societal perspective the vast majority of college-level schooling represents squandered time and money.

The primary value of earning a college degree is to send a signal to the employment marketplace that the bearer of a sheepskin is intelligent enough, diligent enough, and conformist enough to undergo the multi-year trial of completing the requirements. “For the individual, higher ed helps get you a job and make more money,” said Caplan in an interview with Bacon’s Rebellion. “But for society, the benefits are very overstated.”

Some colleges and universities teach advanced vocational skills such as engineering or law. Students in those fields do learn skills they will apply in their jobs, but Caplan argues that most disciplines teach little that’s relevant in the world outside the ivory tower. A degree in history, for instance, trains the student to become a historian but not much of anything else. By his spitball estimate, 80% of the career-preparation value of a college education comes from signalling, only 20% from content they master.

Reflecting upon my personal experience, I would have to acknowledge that I have forgotten the vast majority of what I learned while earning B.A. and M.A. degrees in history. I recall only the barest of details from my courses in the history of China, Japan, Latin America, the West Indies, Africa, and European overseas expansion. Forty-plus years later, I know more about these topics than the average Joe, but what I’ve forgotten could fill an encyclopedia. Why? Because in my journalism career in Virginia, I never called upon that knowledge and it faded from memory. By contrast, even though I took only a single college course in American government, I retain a storehouse of knowledge about state and local government in Virginia because I call upon it constantly.

I depart from Caplan in my belief that I did learn something of enduring value at the University of Virginia — how to think rigorously and analytically. But then, I must concede, that skill came mainly from two honors courses in historical methodology co-taught by two extraordinary professors and from the experience of writing a senior thesis, not the vast majority of my courses. Most UVa history majors did not take the honors courses and never benefited from the exceptional give-and-take of that particular program.

Caplan would concede that, yes, college students do learn something of enduring value that benefits them later in life, just not much. If the goal is preparing people for the workforce, as so much of the emphasis is today, most Virginians could learn a lot more during four years on the job than they could in four years of college.

“In the real world, most of what you learn is on the job,” Caplan says. “People get good by doing. … Nobody gets good at anything by taking critical thinking classes. They get good by doing.”

Why, then, do millions of Americans collectively spend tens of billions of dollars to attend college? The main reason, Caplan says, is to get a good job. Higher-ed institutions are adept at sorting applicants by intelligence by using such measures as SAT scores and class rankings. But if that were the only value colleges supplied, businesses would select employees on the basis of IQ tests. The ability to complete a four-year program of 40 or so courses also tells employers about a student’s diligence, self-discipline and willingness to conform to institutional demands. Students who fail to complete a college degree — whether because they are not smart enough, are too lazy, or reject institutional norms — are significantly less likely to make good employees.

Caplan makes a prediction fraught with significance for public policy. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) has set a goal of making Virginia the “best educated state” in the country by 2030, which means putting the public education system on a trajectory to produce thousands of degrees more than it would have on its previous path. If the supply of Virginians with a college degree exceeds the demand, the workforce won’t become any more productive Caplan suggests. But employers will separate the wheat from the chaff by increasing the educational criteria they require — credential inflation — thus requiring Virginians to devote even more time and expense to obtaining those credentials.

Caplan has another concern about setting arbitrary goals for the number of degrees and workforce credentials. Too many students are ill prepared for higher education as it is. American colleges are already full of students who aren’t capable of college-level work. Many of them are taking remedial classes, re-learning what they should have learned in high school. The fact that Americans have more educational credentials than ever says nothing about the quality of education they are receiving.

“If you could actually get schools to turn out people who can read or write, that would be an accomplishment,” Caplan says. “There are plenty of college graduates whom you’d be shocked by how poor their literacy or numeracy is.”

I asked Caplan if he saw any value in higher education as a consumer good — not just earning a degree but enjoying the residential campus experience, including everything from football games and dormitory bull sessions to ample opportunities to indulge in alcohol, drugs and sex. Instead of giving their kid money to backpack around Europe for a year, are parents paying their kids to enjoy four years of maximum freedom and minimum responsibility before embarking upon a lifetime of toil?

Some parents may be motivated by nostalgia for their own college experience, Caplan conceded, but he doesn’t think it’s an important factor in why they insist their kids get a degree. Most people attend college to advance their prospects in the job market. “Suppose college grads didn’t earn anything extra, how many people would still go? … College would be just for rich kids.”

Caplan sees considerable value in on-the-job training such as internships and apprenticeships — programs in which employees gain knowledge that they apply directly to work. I asked if he subscribed to the idea of “just in time learning” —  taking courses and mastering skills as they are needed. 

“From the point of view of taxpayers, that makes a lot more sense,” he says. Even then, he’s guarded about the value of acquiring knowledge by taking college courses. Say an aspiring manager wants to learn project management. How can he or she learn the discipline most effectively — by attending lectures and doing homework, or by shadowing someone on the job? Still, taking courses as needed is less wasteful than sending someone to college for four years and “consuming this giant buffet of stuff they’ll never need again.”

Scientific Knowledge vs Social Constructionism

C.E. Larson

C.E. Larson is a professor of mathematics and applied mathematics at Virginia Commonwealth University, and he’s a big believer in the scientific method as a way of thinking and accumulating knowledge. He’s also worried that a proposed new General Education curriculum winding its way through the VCU bureaucracy is so loaded with trendy, anti-scientific thought that it will make the university “a public and national embarrassment.”

“The proposed curriculum not only appears to be unrigorous and unfocused, but the main problem is that it is implicitly anti-science, at a time when we need to produce graduates — and citizens — who are critical thinkers, and can think like scientists, no matter what discipline they study,” he writes in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today.

VCU’s current curriculum is conventional, imposing minimum requirements for quantitative literacy, research & academic writing, humanities/fine arts, social/behavioral sciences, and natural physical sciences. The proposed curriculum uses a very different framework for organizing the curriculum: foundations of learning (writing and critical analysis); diversities in the human experience; creativity, innovation, and aesthetic inquiry; global perspectives; and scientific & logical reasoning.

Given the requirement for scientific & logical reasoning, one might be forgiven for wondering what Larson is worried about. It appears that he was triggered by some of the nomenclature in the proposed curriculum.

There is only space here to mention a single offending guideline from VCU’s proposed General Education curriculum: “Recognize how knowledge is constructed differently in various communities.” Knowledge of course is knowledge. But there are fashions in academia that suggest that the most important kinds of knowledge are somehow not universal, and that there is no “truth” to scientific laws.

One of these trends, alluded to in this curriculum guideline, is “social constructivism” or the “social construction of knowledge.” The main idea here seems to be that because people discover scientific laws, the discoveries must be somehow dependent on the backgrounds (cultural, political, etc.) of the scientists who made them. …

A better guideline here would be to recognize how knowledge is universal, and acquired only slowly over time with great effort, by serious and thoughtful researchers across the planet.

A reading of the proposed curriculum reveals other indicators of leftist/progressive thinking:

  • “Understand and evaluate patterns and processes affecting social organization and distributions of power and resources” — again, it’s all about the power.
  • “Examine patterns of inclusion and exclusion, and other forms of social grouping.” The emphasis on inclusion and exclusion, of course, is a leftist preoccupation.

At the risk of getting all philosophical on you, comrade reader, I do believe there is a modicum of truth to the theory of the social construction of knowledge. Knowledge is socially constructed — what else could it be? Embedded in our genome? Further, it is fair to say that there is a powerful tendency for people to construct modes of thought that support and/or justify their own culture, religion, class, nationality, race, ethnicity, affinity group or interest group. Indeed, this is a universal characteristic of human behavior.

However, that’s not to say that all knowledge is socially constructed. Some knowledge comes closer to reflecting reality than other knowledge. Some approaches to acquiring knowledge allow us to send astronauts to the moon and develop cures for cancer that other approaches cannot. Invariably the approaches that advance technology are based upon empiricism and the scientific method. The scientific method — creating falsifiable hypotheses and testing those hypotheses — is, like everything human, less than perfect and subject to bias, blindness and corruption. But over the long haul, it has worked better than any other approach to acquiring knowledge, and the proof, visible in technological marvels, is there for all to see.

Applying the scientific method to the study of human behavior — psychology, sociology, economics, politics, etc. — is more problematic than the physical sciences because (a) human behavior is so extraordinarily complex and influenced by such a vast number of variables, and (b) people have a greater stake in the outcome, which, therefore, may bias the process of scientific inquiry. (Thus, for example, we get supposedly scientific studies finding that liberals have higher IQs than conservatives.)

While the “scientific” process of acquiring knowledge about human affairs is riddled with pitfalls, it is superior to the process that says we all believe what we want to believe, that knowledge is purely a construct of power, and he (or she, or they, or ze) with the most power imposes his language, mental constructs, and cultural/political views on others.

It’s one thing for individual professors to adopt the constructivist paradigm. It’s another thing for a university administration to embed that paradigm within the curriculum. Is that what VCU’s proposed curriculum seeks to do? It’s hard to tell. Is studying “diversities in human experience” a means to entrench leftist/progressive thought? Given the temper of higher education today, I do share Larson’s concerns. But the curriculum also gives emphasis to “scientific & logical reasoning.” I hate to pre-judge the outcome.

What’s Wrong with UVa, and What’s Not

Photo credit: Washington Post

There is something wrong with a university that sits on an endowment of $8.6 billion while raising the cost of an undergraduate tuition to $63,000 a year for out-of-state students and $32,000 a year for in-state students, writes Brendan Novak, opinion editor for the Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia student newspaper.

Novak goes on to make some very good points and some very misguided ones. Both are worthy of discussion.

First, Novak decries the idea of UVa as a “Public Ivy.”

The label “Public Ivy” reeks of a desperation for prestige that is increasingly characteristic of schools like the University. Traditional Ivy League schools have known for centuries that wealth confers status and status confers wealth, and now that public schools like the University have caught on, they seem committed to emulating this model. From a self-serving perspective, this might appear to be a positive development — one could reasonably expect students to celebrate the University’s pursuit of prestige. It’s true, the University’s growing prominence only serves to better the opportunities available to students — and yet it’s hard to not find this obsession with cultural eminence fundamentally troubling. The University is first and foremost a public institution, and its pursuit of elite status detracts from its primary responsibility — to serve the Commonwealth.

Outside of the career schools, higher education in the United States is a non-profit endeavor. Colleges and universities are not profit-maximizing institutions. Rather, they are prestige-maximizing institutions. Elite institutions such as UVa are engaged in a never-ending prestige “arms race” to increase prestige — measured by student SAT scores, the volume of research, faculty distinction, and the like — even while the Harvards, Yales, MITs, and Stanfords seek to preserve or improve their own rankings. There is no limit to institutions’ creativity in devising costly new ways to recruit star students and star faculty; hence there is no upward limit on how much they crave in tuition revenue and endowment size.

So, Novak is quite correct: Insofar as UVa is obsessed with achieving parity with the most prestigious nationally ranked universities in the country, it is detracting from its primary responsibility to serve the Commonwealth.

But then he goes astray. He faults UVa for its under-representation of underprivileged Virginians.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1-in-10 residents live below the federal poverty line. … At the University on the other hand, almost the same proportion of undergraduate students come from the top 1 percent of wealth. Further, two-thirds of students come from the top 20 percent, while less than 3 percent come from the bottom 20. In an ideal world, public schools like the University would be powerhouses of economic mobility, granting underprivileged students a state-subsidized ticket to the middle class. …

Whether it’s a problem of outreach, financials or community development, it is clear that the University could be doing much more to make meaningful inroads into low-income communities.

If the University of Virginia were the only public university in Virginia, Novak might have a point. But UVa is only one of fifteen public four-year institutions in the Virginia higher education system. The system, not UVa, has an obligation to provide “under-privileged students a state-subsidized ticket to the middle class.”

There is nothing wrong with having institutions that are elite by Virginia standards. As Virginia’s flagship university, UVa sets the highest merit-based admission standards and provides the most rigorous academic education (with the possible exception of the College of William & Mary). Given the powerful correlation between socio-economic status and academic achievement in high school, it is inevitable that the UVa student body will be compromised disproportionately of students from higher-income households. The university provides generous financial assistance to the small number of students from lower-income households who defy the odds and become high academic achievers. No one is turned away for an inability to pay the tuition. The barrier to having more lower-income students at UVa isn’t insufficient financial aid, it’s the lack of lower-income students who meet the admissions qualifications. That is the fault of failing K-12 institutions, or perhaps society at large, not UVa.

Practically speaking, the only way to achieve Novak’s goal of greater socioeconomic diversity is to lower admissions qualifications. Does anyone want UVa to relax standards — especially when considering that there are numerous other institutions in Virginia that are well equipped to educate students with less-rarefied credentials?

Speaking as a Virginia citizen and a UVa alumnus, I want to see UVa continue to strive for excellence, but not at the expense of displacing more Virginia students or making the cost of attendance more financially burdensome for qualifying middle-class students. There is a proper balance, and UVa hasn’t achieved it. But adopting Novak’s critique would push university priorities even further off kilter. The solution would be worse than the cure.

Is the “Bias” at UVa Worth All the Attention It Gets?


The University of Virginia promotes an “inclusive and welcoming environment for all.” It encourages students to promptly report bias-related incidents so the administration can evaluate them to determine if university policies have been violated. The university also collects data on “bias” incidents reported by students.

The incidents include verbal, written or physical threats, harassment or intimidation, and it covers a wide range of protected groups based on age, color, disability, race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, veteran status, marital status or — get this — family medical or genetic information. You can find the report for the 2016-17 academic year here.

The UVa administration divides bias reports into four categories. Category 1 consists of actual threats or harassment. Category 2 describes conduct directed not at individuals but protected groups generally. Category 3 includes incidents that do not appear to involve any bias-motivated conduct, and Category 4 covers allegations lacking sufficient detail to evaluate. Categories 1 and 2 are the only ones worth worrying about, so I will exclude the other two from this discussion.

Now, in a 24,000-student university ruled by identity politics, how many Category 1 and Category 2 bias incidents would you expect to be reported over the course of the year? 100? 500? 1,000?

None of the above. Depending on exactly what you’re counting, the number is more like 40 to 45.

Most of the allegations involved verbal or online harassment. Only one incident rose to the level of someone making a threat. One entailed vandalism, and one involved property damage. Not one physical altercation was reported.

And remember, these are allegations — before UVa has investigated the truth behind the charges. UVa does not reveal the results of its investigations, but it would be interesting to know how many cases were verified as real, and how many had mitigating circumstances. For example, how many incidents arose during an argument of escalating rhetoric and insults? How many consisted of “micro-aggressions” made unwittingly?

Conversely, it is likely that some bias incidents were never reported. Still, the numbers — roughly one report filed for every 530 students — strikes me as astonishingly low given the hyper-sensitivity on college campuses these days.

The hopeful message from this data is that the vast majority of UVa students of all races, ethnicities, and religions mix easily with one another. There may be the occasional incident like that one I noted yesterday about pro-Palestinian protesters busting up an event sponsored by Jewish groups, but that is a rarity.

The low number of incidents also tells me that the campus obsession with identity politics is misplaced. The overwhelming majority of Americans want to get along, and in fact they do. The right-wing and left-wing political extremists who stoke racial and gender grievances represent the biggest problem. If UVa categorized the students who filed complaints by their level of political consciousness, who knows what else we might find?

“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.

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.