The General Assembly enacted the 2005 Restructuring Act with the idea of holding public universities accountable to a set of performance metrics. Many measures have fallen by the wayside.
This is the third of four articles exploring higher-education accountability in Virginia since enactment of the 2005 “Restructuring Higher Education Financial and Administrative Services Act.”
Upon becoming governor in 2002, Mark Warner made higher education a top priority. An entrepreneur who had made his fortune in cell phones, he saw Virginia’s colleges and universities as vital institutions for preparing a technology-ready workforce and for creating R&D-based innovation centers. He arranged a $900 million state-backed bond initiative to pay for a college building program, and he pushed through a tax increase to offset the spending cuts he’d enacted previously to balance a recession-hammered budget.
Warner paid keen attention to higher ed issues. In 2003 Virginia became one of five states to join the National Collaborative for Postsecondary Education Policy. The ensuing discussions brought another priority to the fore — the gap in access to higher education experienced by different races and ethnic groups. African-Americans and Hispanics lagged the population in college attendance, and given the increasing proportion of minorities in the college-bound population, lawmakers worried that the disparity in access could get even worse.
At the same time, Virginia’s public universities had their own agendas, which entailed winning more freedom from regulation and less state meddling with tuition. In 2005, Warner and the higher-ed establishment struck a grand bargain enshrined in the “2005 Restructuring Act” — universities would get more autonomy, and Warner would get more accountability.
“Restructuring was a historic effort by the Commonwealth to establish a new relationship that would both help to ensure the viability and the effectiveness of public higher education for the citizens of the Commonwealth,” says Peter Blake, director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).
The legislation enshrined eleven goals, to which a twelfth was added after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. Public institutions would:
- Ensure access to higher education, including meeting enrollment demand.
- Ensure affordability, regardless of income.
- Provide a broad range of academic programs.
- Maintain high academic standards.
- Improve student retention and progress toward timely graduation.
- Develop uniform articulation agreements with community colleges.
- Stimulate economic development.
- Increase externally funded research and improve technology transfer.
- Work actively with K-12 to improve student achievement.
- Prepare a six-year financial plan.
- Meet financial and administrative management standards.
- Ensure the safety and security of students on college campuses.
The 2005 Restructuring Act put the Governor and Secretary of Finance in charge of developing financial and administrative measures, and tasked SCHEV with devising and tracking metrics for the other goals. SCHEV would publish an “Assessment of Institutional Performance” every year that ascertained whether or not institutions met the goals. Falling short would jeopardize a college’s access to revenue sources estimated in 2008 to be worth about $60 million across Virginia’s higher-ed system. (The incentives have declined to less than $20 million in recent years.)
After the law passed, the state began diligently devising metrics and compiling data, some of which SCHEV had been collecting already, and Virginia’s public colleges and universities incorporated the state goals into their own planning processes. Several years later, the 2011 “Preparing for the Top Jobs of the 21 Century” act, modified the goals, establishing an objective of increasing the number of degrees awarded by 100,000 over 15 years. Top Jobs put an emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and health disciplines.
We saw in Part II of this series that the 2005 Restructuring Act has brought some tangible financial benefits to Virginia’s colleges and universities. In exchange, the state expected to hold them accountable for achieving the 12 state goals. How did those goals translate into metrics? How carefully did the state keep track of those metrics? And what happened if and when institutions fell short?
While outside observers hoped that the new covenant between the Commonwealth and its higher-ed system might provide a new model for the nation, administering the 2005 Restructuring Act proved more difficult than anyone anticipated. The accountability-by-metrics piece bogged down in a legislative-bureaucratic morass.
SCHEV and the Secretariat of Finance still monitor student enrollment and degrees granted, and they track an array of financial and administrative measures for the institutions that have signed Level II and Level III autonomy agreements. SCHEV compiles these limited metrics in biennial performance reviews for each institution. Further, SCHEV maintains a rich database of higher-education statistics, much of which is relevant to the 12 state goals, and it publishes metrics for a strategic plan, the Virginia Plan for Higher Education.
But changes implemented over the years have undercut accountability. Hewing to directives from governors and the General Assembly, SCHEV no longer sets benchmarks or monitors metrics for all 12 state goals at each college and university. If institutions fall short of metrics that SCHEV does track, they suffer no public rebuke. Most significantly, while Virginia’s higher-ed system continues to meet some state goals, the apparatus put into place by the 2005 Restructuring Act has proven unable to rein in tuition cost increases or prevent a crisis of middle-class affordability. Continue reading