Inquisitor, Investigate Thyself

The Southern Commission on Colleges has far better subjects for its oversight activities than the University of Virginia's Board of Visitors.

grand inquisitorby Reed Fawell III

Despite the fracas last summer between University of Virginia's Board of Visitors and President Teresa Sullivan, or perhaps because of it, the university has charted a bold new course, as reflected in its recently published 2012-2013 Consolidated Budget.

Budgets are rarely inspirational. This one is. Setting a new direction for the 193-year-old institution, the budget is detailed and comprehensive, even in summary. It’s also blunt, perceptive, targeted, and visionary. The university is initiating a new financial model that facilitates multi-year strategic planning, integrates University-wide functions, identifies opportunities to grow revenues and finds efficiencies to contain costs. The budget aims to strengthen faculty by increasing pay and recruiting new professors. It incorporates distance learning. If there's a huge problem with UVa's governance system, it's not readily apparent.

Given the progress made at UVa since Sullivan's reinstatement, why has the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (the "Southern Commission") chosen this moment to investigate the integrity of the university's Board of Visitors? Why would it mention publicly that one possible outcome of its review could be dis-accreditation -- a drastic sanction that, among other repercussions, would render University students ineligible for federal loans and grants? Upon what basis does the organization claim the powers of a grand inquisitor standing in judgment of the board?

The assertiveness of the Southern Commission is all the more remarkable considering that the University consistently ranks among the top two or three most prestigious public universities in the country, far exceeding the minimal academic standards required for accreditation. Moreover, Kiplinger ranks UVa ranks number one among the nation’s public institutions for serving students in financial need. The publication uses three criteria: the cost of a degree versus its value to the student, the certainty of timely graduation, and the value of Virginia’s aid package to the student. Meeting these standards assures needy students the best-quality education at the lowest price and positions them to quickly pay off their loans.

Using these tests, the University ranks #1 nationally in graduating students on time. It’s tied with UNC for #1 aid package. It’s ranked #3 in overall value nationally among public institutions, irrespective of student need. Only UVa and UNC in Kiplinger’s ranking meet the full financial needs of enrolled students. Average annual cost for in-need students overall is only $5,138. 

By nearly all measures, UVa out-performs every other public college and university, except UNC, under the Southern Commission’s purview. Yet accreditation issues are rampant among many of the Commission's member institutions, particularly the extent of student loans and grants. College costs and student debt are soaring.  Nationally, total student debt exceeds credit card debt, surpassing $1 trillion and increasing at the rate of $100 billion annually.

These cost are rising even among students graduating on time. But most don’t. Many colleges accredited by the Southern Commission graduate fewer than 25% of those who enroll. Many take six years to earn a four-year degree, dramatically increasing their cost and debt -- and they're the lucky ones. At least they get a degree. Others simply get a bill. Dropout rates are scandalous. Many students pay for years before dropping out.   Of those who do manage to graduate, some discover that they have earned worthless degrees. Forty-five percent of students learn “nothing” their first two years at college, and 36% have still learned nothing after four years, according to Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa who tested 2,300 students from the Class of 2009 that attended 24 accredited colleges. (See “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.”)

Instead of turning its inquisitorial gaze upon UVa, the Southern Commission would do well to examine some of its 800 member institutions with demonstrable problems. Take Texas. Seventy-nine of every 100 public college students in Texas start in junior college. Only two of those 79 earn a 2-year degree on time; only seven graduate in four years. Only 5 of 21 students who begin at a four-year Texas college graduate on time, and only 13 of those 21 earn a degree after studying for eight years. Far too often, college students throughout the other ten southern states accredited by the agencyconfront similar fates. Four-year graduation rates include:

Florida – 35.6%
Georgia – 24.3%
Kentucky – 20%
Louisiana – 15.8%;
Mississippi – 22.4%
North Carolina – 36.5%
Tennessee – 31.9%
Virginia – 45%
West Virginia – 22.2%

The reasons are many for such drop out rates. Students often are not prepared for college work but are admitted anyway. Many get lost in higher education’s “Bermuda Triangle,” taking so many remedial courses they never get to take a college course for credit. But they get the bill, and oftentimes too so does Uncle Sam. 

Who is supervising this awful state of affairs?  The leaders of the Southern Commission include:

  • The president of Delta State University, which graduated only 19.9% of its four-year students within four years. Fewer than half (46.6%) matriculate within six years. Its president is chairman of the Commission.
  • The president of Huston-Tillotson University, which graduated some 11.5% four-year students in 4 years, while another 12.7% earned a degree after six years.
  • Along with the chairman and vice chairman, the presidents of 11 other colleges sit on the Commission’s powerful Executive Council. A sampling of their four-year graduation rates ranges from 13.1% to 22%.

What are these leaders doing, and why?  Who knows?  Over its 60-year history of accrediting colleges to qualify for Federal student aid, the Southern Commission, as best we can tell, has never revoked an accreditation unless the member was on the verge of bankruptcy anyway.   Nor has it established, published, or enforced clear fact-based performance standards that work to insure that our students in need receive the education they pay for.  Why?  And why instead is the Commission investigating the University of Virginia?

Reed Fawell, a consultant, real estate developer and retired attorney, has a B.A. from the University of Virginia, Class of ’67.



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