McDonnell Jawbones Public Colleges over Tuition

Now, that‘s a jawbone.

Governor Bob McDonnell has asked college presidents and boards to limit in-state tuition increases for the 2013-2014 academic year to the Consumer Price Index or lower.

In a letter written earlier this month and made public today, the governor wrote, “After a decade plus of nearly double-digit tuition increases and mounting student loan debt, the cost of higher education is on the minds of parents, students and policymakers.”

In the current year, public colleges and universities have held tuition increases to an average of 4.1%, the lowest average tuition increase in a decade. But tuition still outpaced the increase in wages and salaries, making college more unaffordable than ever.

“I remain concerned about the affordability of post-secondary education for the young people of Virginia,” McDonnell said. “I need your continued innovation and leadership in holding down in-state tuition and fee increases.”

A dilemma faced by Virginia’s public universities is that McDonnell has pushed hard for them to boost programs in the STEM-H disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health), which tend to require more expensive investments in facilities and laboratory equipment than humanities and social sciences. He has set a goal of increasing the number of graduates from Virginia institutions by 100,000 degrees over the next 15 years, with a focus on STEM-H degrees.

Universities are exploring a number of new tuition plans, such as locking in tuition over a four-year program of study and charging more for expensive STEM degrees. Said McDonnell: “I encourage you to evaluate these and other tools that keep access affordable and tuition lower. I ask you to continue to aggressively pursue recommendations from internal and external reviews for cost savings, and in implementing the reallocation of resources’ policy embodied in the budget.”

Bacon’s bottom line: McDonnell’s heart is in the right place. But his message conveyed no tangible reason for university presidents to go along.

In the 1970s, federal authorities had a term — jawboning — for using the bully pulpit to chastise corporations and labor unions into tempering their inflation-inducing practices of raising prices and wages. That’s essentially what McDonnell is doing. Jawboning didn’t restrain inflation, and it won’t restrain tuition hikes.

Unless McDonnell threatens to yank millions of dollars in state assistance, President Obama threatens to restrict student loans, or consumers (students and their parents) rise in revolt, it will remain easier for college administrations to hike tuition than to face down internal constituencies and seriously grapple with costs.


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2 responses to “McDonnell Jawbones Public Colleges over Tuition

  1. The Governor has put money where his heart is on this, and the General Assembly has (this year in particular) even sweetened the pot more than he asked. The amount of state aid has increased by any measure under McDonnell, at a time when few other discretionary line items grew. He has looked at this problem just as you would expect a father of five to d0! The trend line has turned — and there are universities where the level of state support more of promised share of the cost of a basic degree, about two-thirds, than most people realize. There — the secret is out of the bag. The state still pays a BIG PART of the cost of an in-state undergraduate degree, and when the universities bring out their really big crying towels about state indifference, they tend to includes parts of their budget far from the classroom.

    I remain convinced that the major problem is not the cost of a basic education. I remain convinced that too little money is going toward the classroom or the salaries of the faculty. If you are UVA or W&M, why do you care about cost when people are beating down their doors to get in, believing (erroneously in many cases) that the degree is a ticket to the upper middle class? A degree from Longwood or Madison will serve you just as well in many cases, for a whole lot less money. Or even start with a strong associates degree at the community college.

    As bad as the tuition hikes are, watch the fee increases. The money spent on fancy dining halls, large Dean of Diversity staffs, other overhead layers and (dare I say it) athletics. And I fear this letter from the Governor is a bit late in the cycle of decision at most of the schools.

    Now, the creative tuition plans some schools are exploring are worth exploring. But they also give me pause. Under the funding formula used by the state, the “base adequacy calculation” the state is already factoring in the higher cost of an engineering degree, a hard science degree. No argument, it costs more to train an engineer than an English major and that’s already accounted for. So how much more does the tuition really need to go up there? Are some of those hikes really just because demand is high and supply (seats) short? And if we make those degrees more expensive, who are we discouraging? Don’t we want to make the most essential degrees less expensive — more attractive? Just thinking out loud…

    And charging by credit hour makes sense, but again, the flat fee is a real incentive for a motivated student to take 18-19 hours and get in that extra course or get that degree a semester early. It seems to me that incentive goes away, and we reward the student who lumbers along at 9-12 hours per semester with a price break, to boot. For part time students, I see charging by the hour. For somebody who claims full time status, charge then the full price. We want to incentivize on-time completion — how does changing the cost to a per-hour basis do that?

  2. Let me preface my statement by conceding the following points:

    1. I understand McDonnell, and to an extent government in general, has been pushing STEM graduates and degrees.
    2. I am not completely unbiased when it comes to the various public universities in the Commonwealth.

    With that out of the way, if the cost of developing facilities to meet the Governor’s STEM goals is too prohibitive to UVA perhaps these facilities shouldn’t be developed. Consider allowing other universities, specifically those that have the infrastructure in place to meet more of this need. As difficult as it is for me to admit, UVA is a much better university when it comes to the fields of Medicine, Business, Law, and the liberal arts. Tech has historically been better in the areas that are now represented under the STEM mantle. This differentiation and specialization doesn’t need to be a negative. In fact I posit that by increasing tuition and emphasizing STEM programs, UVA is likely to weaken what have historically been its strengths.

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