Dead End for Virginia’s Higher Ed Tuition Model

Peter Blake... an establishment perspective but a thoughtful one.

SCHEV chief Peter Blake: an establishment perspective but a thoughtful one.

by James A. Bacon

The tuition model of public Virginia colleges and universities is evolving. In the old model the state made college attendance more affordable to everyone more or less equally by providing financial support to each public institution. In the new model, institutions make attendance affordable for lower-income Virginians by raising tuition and then offsetting it with financial aid.

In the 1990s, the General Assembly set a goal of covering two-thirds the cost of providing an undergraduate, in-state education, and consistently managed to hit the target, Peter Blake, executive director of the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV), told me last week. As recently as the 2001-2002 school year during the Gilmore administration, the state share rose as high as 77%.  Since then, that percentage has steadily eroded. This year state support covers only 47%.

Tightening state support for higher ed may be understandable, given the relentless spending pressures the General Assembly faces on all fronts. But there are consequences. Colleges and universities offset the loss of state revenue by raising tuition and fees. Then, because lower-income students find the higher charges unaffordable, university boards raise tuition again to set aside funds for financial aid. Middle-income students lose because they wind up paying more. Even lower-income students lose in the bargain because the financial aid lags the tuition.

The University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary can get away with increasing tuition aggressively: Demand for admittance is so high that people are willing to pay. But less prestigious institutions run into the harsh realities of the marketplace. They can’t raise tuition without losing students and their overhead is resistant to cost cutting. The finances of many institutions is precarious.

“I worry about a financial aid model that relies upon individual institutions,” said Blake. Some institutions will be able to provide aid, others won’t. The results, he said, will be “uneven.”

What’s to be done? It’s easy to say we should increase state support. But higher ed competes with K-12, Medicaid, transportation, prisons, mental health, pensions and other priorities. Every category of spending faces its unique challenges that warrant more state spending. And taxpayers, battered by stagnant incomes, aren’t especially receptive to higher taxes.

In theory another option is to give colleges more independence from state oversight and regulation. That was a deal that UVa, W&M and Virginia Tech struck in exchange for reduced state support several years ago. Freedom from state regulation, it was thought, would give them more flexibility by shortening the decision-making loop.

But Blake doesn’t think that there’s much more to gain from deregulation. “Virginia’s system is so decentralized,” he said. “How much regulatory relief can there be?” Control from Richmond is minimal, he said. Each university is self-governing; it has its own board of visitors. A primary function of SCHEV, he could have added, is to avoid unnecessary duplication and redundancy within the state higher-ed system. As the main instrument of state control, SCHEV acts to restrain spending and costs, not to increase them.

How about administrative bloat? Blake said there are good reasons that administrative costs have increased — usually in response to some perceived societal need such as economic development, community engagement or racial and gender equity. He sees no easy cuts to be made.

Toward the close of our conversation, Blake made an unexpected observation. If judged by growth in enrollment, he said, the most successful institution in Virginia is Liberty University, the institution founded by deceased televangelist Jerry Falwell, Not only is its Lynchburg campus growing, its online learning program is exploding. Liberty, which caters to evangelical Christians, delivers educational services not only to Americans but thousands of students overseas. It is the largest university in Virginia.

The quality of an online Liberty University learning experience probably isn’t the same as that of UVa seminar with a professor interacting with 15 students in the same classroom. But, then, it’s probably a whole lot cheaper. I would conjecture that Liberty, an institution not long-lived enough to develop hoary traditions and an entrenched academic culture has found it easier to adapt to the new technology. One reason college tuition is increasing so rapidly nationally is what’s not happening in higher ed rather than what is. Colleges are not making the productivity gains we have seen in nearly every other sector of the economy. Traditional universities have powerful constituencies — often referred to as “stakeholders” — whose interests must be placated.

If traditional colleges can’t find some solution to their rising costs and rising tuition, they’re in big trouble. Liberty University or institutions like it will eat their lunch.

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8 responses to “Dead End for Virginia’s Higher Ed Tuition Model

  1. So what’s to conclude: Dragas was right? The future is on-line? Protests over the firing of Sullivan were misguided, a sentimental reaction to change?

    • Yes, pretty much. Dragas said she had no strategic plan for UVA and Dragas was right. Her plan is to let tuition costs rise until only the adult children of the very rich (who can afford the inflated rates) and the children of the very poor (who will benefit from a transfer payment from the children of rich parents) will be able to attend.

      If you think that is a good plan, the Dragas was wrong. If you think that is a bad plan then Dragas was right.

  2. The middle class: lower class without the disadvantaged’s advantages.

  3. VPI increased tuition for next year by 3.9% as well per the Roanoke Times.

  4. Bacon says: “If traditional colleges can’t find some solution to their rising costs and rising tuition, they’re in big trouble. Liberty University or institutions like it will eat their lunch.”
    Yes, and to a large extent we, the citizens’ lunch has already been eaten by narrow-minded evangelicals who would return our government to their version of biblically-based narrowness. Maybe you ought to take a look at the content that Liberty University offers to its “students” (or converts), and then form an opinion as to the contents’ credibility and impact on the public life in our state and nation.
    After all, it was Regent University’s law school that produced Governor Bob McDonnell and his subsequent version of biblically-based leadership in the Commonwealth of Virginia. With the acclaimed (unvalidated?) outreach of Liberty, we could have an entire state that parroted the teachings of the Robertsons and Falwells. We may be closer than you think to that condition right now. Spawned right here in Virginia, by Pat and Jerry, trying to be like George (Washington) and Tom (Jefferson).
    Check it out: surely the curriculums and professors and learning agendas of Liberty University and Regent U. may be found online. Or not? Coursea’s is.
    Meanwhile, thanks to narrow-minded evangelicals, the WashPost says:
    “Republican lawmakers in Indiana promised Monday to amend a religious liberties bill that critics have labeled as anti-gay, bowing to protests that have rapidly spread to several other states considering similar measures.”
    Do you know what Jefferson did for the Danbury Baptists? Is Pat Robertson such a Baptist, dedicated to religious freedom in our country? Or is he a self-serving baptist, subject only to what he hears from his god?
    And check out, too, course offerings from Coursea (some checked out from my inbox today), that describe in greatest detail what is offered, to be covered, by what professors, who attended what well-known universities, what outcomes are to be expected, and in most detail of all: what the costs will be for every minute of instruction to be consumed online and elsewhere.
    The point is: UVa has plans for all types of teaching and learning that are compatible with its mission, and the highest premium will be placed upon quality: “Or what’s a university for?”
    On the other side of the cultural divide in higher education are those with different agendas: axes to grind that may include the preferment of a religious perspective or endorsement of a political persuasion — to name just two. These agendas and stratagems are not new, though they may be clothed in different raiment; sheep’s clothing all the same (if thin of sheepskin).
    It makes those of us who love this old University have to dig down deep and to remember what we’re based upon: Such commitments as, “We may tolerate any error, so long as reason is left free to counteract it.” Every generation has brought forth figures such as Dragas and Sullivan: both would-be and well-trained leaders. Thank goodness we have President Sullivan, who is acclaimed from Austin to Ann Arbor (and Rugby Road to JPA), as our true leader. Further, we must tolerate and train that other lady, too; she’s one of us. But she ain’t the boss, and neither is Billy G. We will expect the BOV to do its job, in open air where we can see their work. And offer our support, in keeping with our ability: in millions or mites as we are able.

    • Two separate issues here: (1) what you think about the politics of conservative evangelicals and (2) the success of Liberty University (and to a lesser extent Regent) in catering to a niche in the higher education marketplace. Whatever else you say about them, the “anti-technology, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals,” as some on the left might characterize them, have been quick to embrace distance learning.

    • I understand that Bill Goodwin will be the next rector at UVa. He has a forceful personality and I’m sure he’ll make his presence felt. What kind of expectations do you have for him?

  5. I am a somewhat atypical UVa alumnus who worked in academia, and  I really worry most about the tendency to drift toward too much state control (from a recalcitrant legislature), and the provincialism of Goodwin and a few others on the BOV. His homespun comments send a message, and he knows it. He’s undergrad degree is from Va Tech, which I respect, but UVa has a different founder, role, and mission. (Rectors should be former undergraduates: hold a UVa bachelor’s, in my view.)
    A university can’t attract the best new faculty if trustees/visitors sound as Goodwin did, comparing board and faculty issues to his personal domestic life. That was almost a year ago; perhaps he has changed his tune, but only time will tell.
    What I learned as a student at VIRGINIA is this: Do your best and dare to be different, as Mr. Jefferson was, and as UVa is. If our leaders take a right-wing, cookie-cutter tack, the value of the Jefferson-inspired university will be lost, perhaps forever. Politicians cannot understand that: they live in a different, cookie-cutter world. The do-nothingness of the General Assembly in Richmond is a perfect example: be it no self-discipline for their own ethics, or self-serving legislation like letting home-schooled kids play on public school sports teams — they spend their time in self-absorption. As former US Sen. Bill Bradley said last week on C-SPAN, talking to a Congressional committee about tax reform: team work is required and putting aside petty party positions at least in working sessions, is a must. But that hasn’t been seen in Virginia’s legislature for 20 years. So do you expect politically motivated delegates and their largest contributors to run a competitive university or entire state university system? (Check out the mess in UNC!)
    Jefferson believed that mortal men could rise above their pettiness, including the worship of ancestors and/or love of MONEY. It will take all of that and more for UVa to achieve new heights academically. So, the next rector at UVa had better possess fine qualities of leadership and self-denial. If Mr. Goodwin (appointed to UVa BOV by a flawed governor) is slated for the post and is not capable of those qualities, someone had better challenge him; that would at least put the issues on the table, and might lead him to improved performance. Condescension toward the Faculty Senate is the kind of behavior that Mr. Goodwin must cease to practice. A major, world-class university is what we have; to treat it as a family business (note well, Ms Dragas, too!) is to show alarming general unawareness, let alone a deficit in administrative skill. The challenges are many; President Sullivan is the brightest star in UVa’s firmament; may we give her strong support.

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