How to Cut UVa Tuition 74% without Really Trying

Helen Dragas

Helen Dragas

by James A. Bacon

Helen Dragas, former rector of the University of Virginia, tried yesterday in op-eds published in the Roanoke Times and Daily Progress to jump-start a conversation about how to dispose of roughly $100 million a year income from a $2.3 billion “Strategic Investment Fund” cobbled together from various sources.

That conversation never occurred in the full Board of Visitors because, Dragas charged, university officials had shepherded a series of actions creating the fund without completely explaining its real purpose. Only after the fact did she come to understand that the estimated $100 million a year was to be used primarily to hire faculty, build labs, promote research and otherwise advance the prestige and reputation of the university — and that was in her last few days as a board member. And when the full board was invited to discuss the university’s plans for the money, it was in a closed meeting the legality of which Dragas has questioned.

Here are proposals that Dragas outlined in her op-eds:

  • Roll back tuition by 74% for in-state students, saving about $5,500 a year of $22,000 for a four-year degree. That would still leave between $40 million and $100 million a year to dedicated to university advancement.
  • Freeze tuition for five years by cutting non-classroom spending.
  • Reduce the $67 million a year spend on financial awards to out-of-state students. With 21,000 applications for 1,200 out-of-state, first-year spots, subsidies are unnecessary.
  • Cut administrative salaries. University staff is overloaded with highly paid administrators. One assistant to a secretary earns roughly $115,000 a year (equivalent to nine student tuitions).
  • Control construction costs. “Excessive costs of almost $1,000 per square foot for a medical center waiting room and $425 per square foot for a maintenance building help explain why cash flow from depreciation has fed the surpluses over time.”
  • Rationalize fund-raising efforts. The university has more than 20 related foundations whose combined activities reportedly cost it more than three times the national non-profit average per dollar raised.

Finally, Dragas proposes:

Virginians interested in mission-centered, efficiently run state institutions should engage a team of the brightest MBA candidates to audit the university’s spending. These objective young minds would earn a stipend, gain valuable experience, and play a meaningful role in keeping UVa excellence affordable for the next several generations.”

Oh, and by the way, the work of the student audit teams would be completely transparent. “That way, board members, administrators, other students and taxpayers could all benefit from their insights and example.”

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13 responses to “How to Cut UVa Tuition 74% without Really Trying

  1. As a somewhat unhappy alum of Mr. Jefferson’s University, if true, I find the $67 million spent on 1,200 out of state first year slots both offensive and reprehensible. If true, someone’s head should roll down the lawn and I can think of no better place to start looking for one than the President’s office.

    Two of my children have an intense desire to spend four years in C-Ville but in recent years I find myself hesitant to underwrite their attendance at what used to be a fine institution. This may be the last straw (unless they want to got to VPI in which case I will have to suck it up).

    • You know, it does sound offensive when described that way. Now why would the University spend $67 mill to provide ‘scholarships’ to out- of state first year men and women — other than to attract scholars? Think minority enrollment quotas; think athletes. They can’t fill those slots in-state even with all that money. Isn’t THAT a shame?

  2. But.. but…but Dragas is a really bad person,, with…with personal motives and agenda. She’s really sneaky and devious.

  3. I don’t think Dragas is devious or sneaky – nor bad -but about as subtle as a Mack Truck in her actions ostensibly to “help” UVA meet it’s “challenges” – those challenges, once again, primarily defined by Ms. Dragas – with the rest of the BOV snakebitten by their humiliation in the Sullivan fiasco – and leery about getting drawn into another briar patch.

    so first it was MOOC and the President should be fired for not pursuing it and other “strategic’ goals with the vigor that Dragas wanted and now she’s not at all sure of their attempts at strategic goals if they don’t align with hers cuz now she thinks tuition cost is more important than strategic planning?

    so fire Sullivan for not strategically planning and now blow up UVA because they want to strategically plan but tuition is more important?

    this is all about Helen – and how she thinks UVA should be run – and if you cross her – she’ll fire your President and if that don’t work she’ll accuse you of nefarious slush fund skullduggery and FOIA abuse?

    Who can blame the BOV for not getting snookered again?

    geeze – Dragas is like a Kamikaze just tearing the hell out of a hillside full of kudzu!

    she has not even made a Prima Facie case for what tuition SHOULD BE relative to other colleges – any more than she succeeded as saying what it was Sullivan should actually be fired for… this is not devious or sneaky – lord no – it’s just plain cretin personified.

    And if UVA had half a brain – they’d announce a tuition cut for those who would enroll in MOOC!


    • It does suggest that the Board could have satisfied its own definition of transparency and avoided this drama entirely if it had just waited one more meeting to discuss the strategic investment fund post-Dragas. I’d like to hear more from the other side of this debate.

      • Let’s assume UVA is the bad guy and really has done wrong and further has no intention to “help” gather the “evidence” to convict itself!


        what would you do if you REALLY wanted REAL CHANGE?

        I’d go get the numbers – make a Prima Facie – show it to them and ask that they engage – once – and after that – take it – first – to the General Assembly and urge the State to withhold funds until changes are made, then to the public and State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and JLARC and advocate for more explicit required budget transparency – and independent 3rd party forensic audits – etc.

  4. Pretty interesting report from the folks at State Council of Higher Education for Virginia

    July 31, 2016 2016-17
    Tuition and Fees at Virginia’s State-Supported
    Colleges and Universities

    one aspect I’d like to know more about at UVA are the two classes of mandatory fees: educational and general fees and non educational and general fees – and their trends at UVA over the last few years and compared to other institutions. Are they out of line?

    from the report: “Tuition and Mandatory E&G Fees: Mandatory student charges used to support instruction and education-related activities included in the Education and General (E&G) program. E&G subprograms include instruction, research and public service, academic support, student services, institutional support, and the operation and maintenance of physical plants.”

    ” 2. Mandatory Non-E&G Fees: Mandatory student charges used to support noninstructional activities, such as student health services, athletics, recreational activities, campus transportation and capital debt service. ”

    surely both of these fees are shown in their budget.

    the average for the state:

    Tuition and Mandatory E&G Fees $ 8,177 $367 4.7%
    Mandatory Non-E&G Fees $3,960 $178 4.7%

    there is also an informative discussion on page 22 –
    Appendix A: Tuition Policy to include the fact that all fees are collected by the State and sent back to the institutions but not endowments and other fundraising.

    Based on what this report says – it sounds like the data is likely available to whoever wishes to take the time and effort themselves and not have to depend solely on the UVA administration to provide it.

    But this is what I mean by specifics and smoking gun.

    Put meat on the bones of the general claim. Provide the numbers. Make the case – and provide evidence that is factual – and undeniable in making the case.

    that’s how you challenge the University substantively – with the numbers not just general claims in the newspaper.

  5. I don’t think this is a smoking gun situation. What’s being revealed is institutional culture and some widely tolerated bad habits that smack of arrogance (don’t worry your pretty little heads, we’ll tell you how we’re spending your money, and we’ll hide it from you so that we don’t have to explain it to you).

    • Lift – do you think most any University would act a whole lot differently than UVA on these kinds of issues?

      why are you guys personalizing this to one University?

      My impression is that most of these Administrations behave similarly when it comes to how they do business and how people on the outside challenge them…

      no? is UVA specifically different?

  6. Democratic state senators Surovell & Petersen call for a UVA tuition freeze in light of the $2.3 billion balance in the Strategic Investment Fund. According to Petersen, “There is no reason to have a surplus of operating funds, at least of that size, unless you are systematically overcharging for services.” I guess they don’t have a problem singling out UVA.

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