Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

Obessions of Inequality

Graphic credit: "Geographies of Opportunity"

Graphic credit: “Geographies of Opportunity”

by James A. Bacon

Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis, authors of “Geographies of Opportunity,” provide a state-by-state and congressional district-by-congressional district measurement of “well being” across the United States. Overall, Virginia fares reasonably well in the report, scoring 11th overall. Well being is determined by a set of measures for life expectancy, education and median income. But state averages can mask a lot. Indeed, Virginia stands out for the inequality of income and well being inside its borders.

The premise of the report is that there other ways to measure progress than by the usual metrics of economic growth. The study draws upon the United Nation’s Human Development Index to measure three “fundamental human dimensions” — a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living. “There is a broad consensus that these three capabilities are essential building blocks for a life of value, freedom and dignity.”

The Index score for the United States as a whole is 5.06. Connecticut is the best off, with an index of 6.17, and Virginia comes in at 11th at 5.47. Mississippi (no surprise) comes in last at 3.81. (Play with the data here.)

Burd-Sharps and Lewis also break down the numbers by congressional district. Virginia has three of the top 20 districts in the nation ranked by well being — the 8th (Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax), the 10th (Manassas to Winchester), and the 11th (Reston to Quantico). And it has one of the poorest — the 9th, in the far Southwest.

OK, what does all this tell us? I’m really not sure. Other than obsessing about what we all know to be true — there are huge wealth gaps in the United States — the study doesn’t tell us much. Gee, there’s a link between education level and health? Who would have figured? And there’s a link between income and health, too? Gosh, tell me more.

In a sidebar, the study notes how the ethnically pluralistic residents of the 8th district in the affluent Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., live eight years longer than the predominantly white residents living in the isolated mountains of Southwest Virginia. Longevity in affluent U.S. congressional districts exceeds that of Japan. Longevity in the poorest districts, like the 9th, compares to Gaza and the West Bank.

So, what do we do about it? Improving human development outcomes in Appalachia, the authors opine, “requires greater investment in peoples’ capabilities to thrive in the new economy” — specifically, a high-quality pre-school experience.

But elsewhere we read that the higher the proportion of foreign-born residents in a congressional district, the longer the district’s life expectancy. In sunny California, there is a “surprising” 3.2-year life expectancy gap in favor of foreign-born Latinos as compared to their U.S.-born counterparts. Surprising — really? It’s only surprising if you think that the only meaningful determinants of public health are education and income levels, and that culture has nothing to do with it. As it turns out, the longer poor Latinos live in the U.S. and adopt fast food-heavy diets, the greater their risk of obesity-related illnesses.

Now that would have been an interesting angle to pursue. When affluent populations have better health outcomes than poor populations, the assumption is that the difference can be attributed to superior access to health care. Surely some of it is. But how much is due to different diets and lifestyles? Are there strategies that attack health problems more directly than, say, by increasing spending on pre-K?

Another thing that irritated me was the failure to adjust incomes for cost of living. If the purpose is to compare well being, the cost of living is a major consideration. The authors contrast Connecticut and Wyoming, states with similar GDPs per capita, in the $65,000 to $68,000 range. “Does this mean that the people living in these two states enjoy similar levels of health, education and living standards?” the authors ask. “It does not. Connecticut residents, on average, can expect to outlive their western compatriots by nearly two and a half years, are 40 percent more likely to have bachelor’s degrees, and typically earn $6,000 more per year.”

Here’s what the study doesn’t bother to tell you. According to CNN Money’s cost of living calculator, earning $50,ooo in Cheyenne, Wyoming, is the equivalent of earning $64,900 in Hartford or $76,600 in New Haven. Incomes are lower? Yes, but the dollar stretches 30% to 50% further. The question I would ask is this: How is it that the residents of Wyoming, who aren’t nearly as well educated as the residents of Connecticut, manage to earn higher incomes on a cost-of-living-adjusted basis?

As an aside, let’s talk about income disparities within congressional districts. Which state do you think has greater disparities of vast wealth and poverty in close proximity — Wyoming, a state of cowboys and coal miners, of Connecticut, a state of inner-city poor and hedge-fund billionaires?

For a document entitled, “Geographies of Opportunity,” this study has almost nothing to say about the economics of opportunity. It has nothing to say about strategies that poor people can pursue to lift themselves out of poverty or lead healthier lives. All recommendations call for an activist and interventionist government. Promote health by cracking down on smoking. Regulate food advertising. Invest public dollars in recreational facilities and (a remedy I actually agree with) in more walkable neighborhoods. Expand pre-school programs. Keep teens in high school until they graduate. Raise the minimum wage. The list goes on with a host of suggestions that have absolutely nothing to do with the data presented. As for the one sure-fire way to wage raises for the poor — create conditions conducive to economic growth so that companies hire more workers, drive down unemployment and bid up wages — it doesn’t warrant a mention.

The numbers in this study are potentially useful. The analysis and recommendations are not.

Dave Brat’s Bizarre Statements

 By Peter Galuszka

Almost a year ago, Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor at Randolph- Macon College, made national headlines when he defeated Eric Cantor, the powerful House Majority Leader, in the 7th District Brat Republican primary.

Brat’s victory was regarded as a sensation since it showed how the GOP was splintered between Main Street traditionalists such as Cantor and radically conservative, Tea Party favorites such as Brat. His ascendance has fueled the polarization that has seized national politics and prevented much from being accomplished in Congress.

So, nearly a year later, what has Brat actually done? From reading headlines, not much, except for making a number of bizarre and often false statements.
A few examples:

  • When the House Education and Workforce Committee was working on reauthorizing a law that spends about $14 billion to teach low-income students, Brat said such funding may not be necessary because: “Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and the Plato trained Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”
  • Brat says that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a step towards making the country be more like North Korea. He compares North and South Korea this way:  “. . . it’s the same culture, it’s the same people, look at a map at night, half the, one of the countries is not lit, there’s no lights, and the bottom free-market country, all Koreans is lit up. See you make your bet on which country you want to be, right? You want to go to the free market.” One problem with his argument:  Free market South Korea has had a single payer, government-subsidized health care system for 40 years. The conservative blog, BearingDrift, called him out on that one.
  • Politifact, the journalism group that tests the veracity of politicians’ statements, has been very busy with Brat. They have rated as “false” or “mostly false” such statements that repealing Obamacare would save the nation more than $3 trillion and that President Obama has issued 468,500 pages of regulations in the Federal Register. In the former case, Brat’s team used an old government report that estimated mandatory federal spending provisions for the ACA. In the latter case, Politifact found that there were actually more pages issued than Brat said, but they were not all regulations. They included notices about agency meetings and public comment periods. What’s more, during a comparable period under former President George W. Bush, the Federal Register had 465,948 pages, Politifact found. There were some cases, however, where Politifact verified what Brat said.
  • Last fall, after Obama issued an executive order that would protect up to five million undocumented aliens from arrest and deportation, Brat vowed that “not one thin dime” of public money should go to support Obama’s plan. He vowed to defund U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services but then was told he couldn’t do so because the agency was self-funded by fees from immigration applications. He then said he would examine how it spent its money.

The odd thing about Brat is that he has a doctorate in economics and has been a professor. Why is he making such bizarre, misleading and downright false statements?

Beware Stalling Growth in Northern Virginia

northern virginia mapBy Peter Galuszka

For at least a half a century, Fairfax County, Alexandria and Arlington County have been a growth engine that that has reshaped how things are in the Greater Washington area as well as the Old Dominion.

But now, apparently for the first time ever, these Northern Virginia localities have stopped growing, according to an intriguing article in The Washington Post.

In 2013, the county saw 4,673 arrivals but in 2014 saw 7,518 departures. For the same time period, Alexandria saw 493 arrivals and then 887 departures. Arlington County showed 2,004 arrivals in 2013 followed by 1,520 departures last year.

The chief reason appears to be sequestration and the reduction of federal spending. According to a George Mason University study, federal spending in the area was $11 billion less  last year than in 2010. From 2013 to 2014, the area lost 10,800 federal jobs and more private sectors ones that worked on government contracts. Many of the cuts are in defense which is being squeezed after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The most dramatic cuts appear to be in Fairfax which saw a huge burst of growth in 1970 when it had 450,000 people but has been slowing for the most part ever since. It still grew to 1.14 million people, but the negative growth last year is a vitally important trend.

Another reason for the drop offs is that residents are tired of the high cost and transit frustrations that living in Northern Virginia brings.

To be sure, Loudoun County still grew from 2013 to 2014, but the growth slowed last year from 8,904 newcomers in 2013 to 8,021 last year.

My takeaways are these:

  • The slowing growth in NOVA will likely put the brakes on Virginia’s move from being a “red” to a “blue” state. In 2010, Fairfax had become more diverse and older, with the county’s racial and ethnic minority population growing by 43 percent. This has been part of the reason why Virginia went for Barack Obama in the last two elections and has Democrats in the U.S. Senate and as governor. Will this trend change?
  • Economically, this is bad news for the rest of Virginia since NOVA is the economic engine for the state and pumps in plenty of tax revenues that end up being used in other regions. Usually, when people talk about Virginia out-migration, they mean people moving from the declining furniture and tobacco areas of Southside or the southwestern coalfields.
  • A shift in land use patterns and development is inevitable. The continued strong growth of an outer county like Loudoun suggests that suburban and exurban land use patterns, many of them wasteful, will continue there. The danger is that inner localities such as Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, will be stuck with more lower-income residents and deteriorating neighborhoods. The result will be that localities won’t have as much tax money to pay for better roads, schools and other services.
  • Virginia Republicans pay lip service to the evils of government spending and have championed sequestration. Well, look what a fine mess they have gotten us into.

The rest of the Washington area is seeing slowing growth, but appears to be better off. The District’s in-migration was cut in half from 2013 to 2014 but it is still on the plus side. Ditto Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

NOVA has benefited enormously from both federal spending and the rise of telecommunications and Web-based businesses. It is uncertain where federal spending might go and maybe increased private sector investment could mitigate the decline. Another bad sign came in 2012 when ExxonMobil announced it was moving its headquarters from Fairfax to Houston.

In any event, this is very bad news for NOVA.

Amateur Hour at the General Assembly

virginia_state_capitol502By Peter Galuszka

If you are an ordinary Virginian with deep concerns about how the General Assembly passes laws that impact you greatly, you are pretty much out of luck.

That’s the conclusion of a study by Transparency Virginia, an informal coalition of non-profit public interest groups in a report released this week. Their findings  came after members studied how the 2015 General Assembly operated.

Among their points:

  • Notice of committee hearings was so short in some instances that public participation was nearly impossible.
  • Scores of bills were never given hearings.
  • In the House of Delegates, committees and subcommittees did not bother to record votes on 76 percent of the bills they killed.

“Despite a House rule that all bills shall be considered, not all are. Despite a Senate rule that recorded votes are required, not all are,” states the 21-page report, whose main author is Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Transparency Virginia is made up of 30 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, the the Virginia Education Association and the League of Women Voters in Virginia.

The scathing report underscores just how amateurish the General Assembly can be. It only meets for only 45 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years. The pay is pin money. Delegates make only $17,640 a year and senators earn $18,000 annually.

It is not surprising then that a part-time group of 100 delegates and 40 senators can’t seem to handle their 101 committees and subcommittees that determine whether the consideration of thousands bills proceeds fairly and efficiently.

“A Senate committee chair did not take comment on any bills on the agenda except for the testimony from the guests of two senators who were presenting bills,” the report states. In other cases, legislators were criticized by colleagues for having too many witnesses. Some cut off ongoing debate by motioning to table bills. Bills were “left in committee” never to be considered.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires that open public meetings be announced three working days in advance. A General Assembly session is considered one, long open session. But the FOIA is often subverted by sly legislators who manipulate the agendas of committees or subcommittees or general sessions.

Agendas of the General Assembly are not covered by the FOIA because there is too much work to cram in 45 or 60 days. In the case of local and state governments, similar meetings are, presumably because they meet more regularly. House and Senate rules do not stipulate how much notice needs to be given before a committee or subcommittee session. So, crucial meetings that could kill a bill are sometimes announced suddenly.

The setup favors professional lobbyists who stand guard in the Capitol ready to swoop in to give testimony and peddle influence, alerted by such tools as “Lobbyist-in-a-Box” that tracks the status of bills as they proceed through the legislature. When something important is up, their beepers go off while non-lobbyist citizens with serious interests in bills may be hours away by car.

The report states: “While most of Virginia’s lobbyists and advocates are never more than a few minutes from the statehouse halls, citizens and groups without an advocacy presence may need to travel long distances.” Some may need to reschedule work or family obligations, yet they may get only two hours’ notice of an important meeting. That’s not enough time if they live more than a two-hour drive from Richmond.

The report didn’t address ethics, but this system it portrays obviously favors lobbyists who benefit from Virginia’s historically light-touch approach when it comes to limited gifts. That issue will be addressed today when the General Assembly meets to consider Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s insistence that a new ethics bill address the problem of allowing consecutive gifts of less than $100 to delegates or senators.

The only long-term solution is for Virginia to consider creating a legislature that works for longer periods, is better paid, more professional and must adhere to tighter rules on bill passage. True, some 24 states have a system somewhat like Virginia and only New York, Pennsylvania and California have truly professional legislatures.

The current system was created back in Virginia was more rural and less sophisticated. But it has grown tremendously in population and importance. It’s a travesty that Virginia is stuck with amateur hour when it comes to considering legislation crucial to its citizens’ well-being.

How to Make UVa a Research Giant

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

University of Virginia Research Park

by Wade Gilley

Recent news reports reveal that the governance problems at the University of Virginia continue to boil, as evidenced by accrediting issues, student protests, legislators considering the restructuring of the institution’s governing board and other news emerging both locally and nationally.

The problems recently surfacing at Virginia’s flagship university are due in part to changing global economics and a unique weakness in Virginia’s public and private higher education system. The commonwealth has an excellent public university/college system, but in the changing world of global economics one large and critical shortfall is economically challenging to Virginia in the 21st century. That shortfall is the lack of a major private research university.

North Carolina has Duke and Wake Forest, Georgia has Emory, Tennessee has Vanderbilt, and Maryland has Johns Hopkins University. These private universities win billions of dollars in competitive research grants and contracts each year in an age in which research is increasingly a key factor in economic development. Virginia does not have a major private research university, and that void may be responsible for the continuing debate about U.Va.’s future.

A recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education on institutional success in competing for dollars from the federal government and other sources indicated that North Carolina’s institutions, both public and private, spend roughly $2.2 billion on research each year and Maryland’s universities spend $2.5 billion. In comparison, Virginia’s universities only spend about $950 million, or 40 percent of what institutions in neighboring/competing states spend.

Although $950 million is a lot of money, Virginia’s investment in research still lags dramatically behind our competitors. The difference is primarily due to the fact that North Carolina has both Wake Forest and Duke, while Maryland has Johns Hopkins.

Virginia’s research limitations have been evident for a long time, but no one has ever publicly recognized the problem, so now it is a 21st-century challenge. And one can see that challenge in the recent conflict regarding the mission of U.Va.

Virginia, perhaps subconsciously, has attempted to make up the difference by encouraging U.Va. to act like a private research university without providing the funds or the governing structure that would facilitate that transition.

There are a few simple solutions to this critical problem. First, create a partial privatization of U.Va. with a totally independent governing board, coupled with state assistance/scholarships for Virginians attending the university. This way, U.Va. would be state-supported, but not state-run, and would have both the freedom and additional resources to compete with major private universities across the country.

Second, the state needs to invest more money and resources to expand the research capabilities of all our research universities, especially U.Va. To achieve this, Virginia should offer significant and targeted incentive grants designed to dramatically increase the competitiveness of all our research universities, which is perhaps the most critical of the challenges facing the commonwealth in the new economy.

I am confident that, with freedom from excessive political oversight and encouragement to function more as a private research university, U.Va. could compete more effectively with Duke, Hopkins, Vanderbilt and — yes, over time — Harvard in the research arena. At the same time, our other major doctoral institutions could become increasingly competitive, resulting in a new and powerful economic force for Virginia in the 21st century.

Now is the time for Virginia to focus on building a larger and more competitive state higher education system, which in turn will make Virginia more competitive in the new global economy. With the coming slowdown in federal dollars gushing across the Potomac and down the bay, we need new and productive initiatives to expand Virginia’s economy.

Wade Gilley, a retired university president living in Reston, served as Virginia’s secretary of education from 1978 to 1982 and once served as chairman of the board of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Contact him at jwgilley@yahoo.com. This column was published originally in the Roanoke Times.

Not Just Any Old Resignation

Miller

Edward D. Miller

Edward D. Miller, former CEO of research powerhouse Johns Hopkins Medicine, will resign from the University of Virginia Board of Visitors effective June 30 — a year early. In an interview with the Daily Progress, he cited his frustration with rising tuition and falling research grants.

“I just felt there were issues I’d been advocating for that I didn’t think were getting traction,” Miller said. “I’d worked at it for four years and I wasn’t having much of an impact.”

Miller, a former UVa faculty member, said he disagreed with recent tuition increases, suggesting that the university should focus on cutting costs instead of raising tuition. “It’s hard for me to understand how you can continue to increase the rate of tuition [faster than] the rate of inflation year after year,” he said in comments that applied to higher education as a whole, not just UVa. “What business can survive that except colleges?”

In particular, Miller was dissatisfied with the way the university implemented its most recent, 11% tuition hike for new students. The plan was introduced and passed on the same day, with no outlet for public comment. “I had a feeling that the board wasn’t given an adequate amount of time to digest this information. … I had no idea what the plan was going to be until the day of the meeting. I was surprised it was done so quickly, without more discussion.”

Tuition increases may be tied to falling research revenues, Miller said  — exactly the issue that Bacon’s Rebellion raised last month in “UVa’s Silent Crisis.” If the university maintains the same number of faculty members doing research, but they’re bringing in less research funding, he said, the money has to come from somewhere else.

Miller, who knows something about what it takes to to build a world-class research program — Johns Hopkins ranks No. 1 in the country for R&D spending — said the UVa board needs to hear from top researchers what it takes to bring in grants. The UVa administration, he told the Daily Progress, also needs to identify which faculty members are not attracting their share of research funding.

Bacon’s bottom line: Make no mistake, Miller’s resignation is a major loss for UVa governance. Miller was not some know-nothing political appointee. As a former faculty member, he knows the university well. As CEO of the world’s most successful research university, he understands what it takes to grow R&D funding. His loss of expertise will be missed — well, maybe it won’t be missed, because it appears that no one was listening to him. But his loss should be missed. Submitting his resignation a year early and his willingness to go public with some of his concerns should be especially disturbing to those who worry where UVa is heading.

The university’s new slogan is “Affordable Excellence.” If the current direction isn’t soon reversed, that will have to be revised to “Unaffordable Mediocrity.”

– JAB

A Worthy Rant… but Not a Solution

David Ramadan

David Ramadan

by James A. Bacon

Del. David Ramadan, R-Loudoun,  fired with both barrels at the University of Virginia in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed today. He voiced the same frustration that I periodically give vent to on this blog. UVa tuition policy — take from the rich and give to the poor — is exactly what Ramadan says it is, a “outrageous” redistribution of wealth.

Under the moniker of “affordable excellence,” the UVa Board of Visitors has just approved one of the highest tuition-and-fee increases in the country. Then, writes Ramadan, “in an effort to justify the vote, board members have said “asking affluent families to shoulder more of the expense is absolutely not a tax, but a reduction in subsidy when they are already receiving a low-cost education.”

The university should be cutting costs instead, Ramadan argues, starting with the sale of the corporate jet and reducing administrative overhead. Does the UVa president really need a personal chef and more than a dozen assistants, some of who are making six-figure salaries?

As for the university’s obsession with prestige, he says, “Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, a publicly supported school with national character and stature serving Virginians — not an aspiring ‘ivy’ for the elite and out-of-state students. … The vast majority of Virginia’s families who make more than $100,000 a year — some of whom wisely began saving for college the year the first child was born — have been boxed out.”

Does the UVa president really need a personal chef and a dozens assistants? Does senior management really need a corporate jet? Yeah, I have problems with all that. The symbolism is as bad as the money. Such perks insulate the university top brass from the travails of the us muggles. They can’t relate to our problems. Indeed, I suspect they largely regard as us parochial and mean-spirited.

But you can slash all of those expenses, saving maybe $2 million or $3 million a year, and systemic problems remain. You can’t shrink administrative staff without addressing the university’s mission creep. You can’t control faculty payroll without addressing the role of tenure and teaching workloads. You can’t trim student fees without eliminating a lot of programs serving vocal special interests.

Unfortunately, other than vent, there’s not much that legislators like Ramadan can do. Virginia’s higher education system is highly decentralized, and UVa is largely self-governing. Legislators can’t even influence the appointment of like-minded members of the Board of Visitors — that’s the governor’s perk. As for us muggles, all we can do is stop stroking fund-raising checks.

A New, Improved Ken Cuccinelli?

ken-cuccinelliBy Peter Galuszka

Is one-time conservative firebrand Ken Cuccinelli undergoing a makeover?

The hard line former Virginia attorney general who lost a bitter gubernatorial race to Terry McAuliffe in 2013 is now helping run an oyster farm and sounding warning alarms about a rising police state.

This is remarkable switch from the man who battled a climatologist in court over global warming; tried to prevent children of illegal immigrants born in this country from getting automatic citizenship; schemed to shut down legal abortion clinics; tried to keep legal protection away from state gay employees; and wanted to arm Medicaid investigators with handguns.

Yet on March 31, Cuccinelli was the co-author with Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia of an opinion column in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Their piece pushes bipartisan bills passed by the General Assembly that would limit the use of drones and electronic devices to read and record car license plate numbers called license plate readers or LPRs.

Cuccinelli and Gastanaga say that McAuliffe may amend the bills in ways that would expand police powers instead of protect privacy. “The governor’s proposed amendments to the LPR bills gut privacy protections secured by the legislation,” they write. The governor’s amendments would extend the time police could keep data collected from surveillance devices and let police collect and save crime-related data from drones used during flights that don’t involve law enforcement, they claim.

When not protecting Virginians from Big Brother, Cuccinelli’s been busy oyster farming. He has helped start a farm for the tasty mollusks on the historic Chesapeake Bay island of Tangier. According to an article in The Washington Post, Cuccinelli got involved when he was practicing law in Prince William County after he left office.

He would visit the business and get roped into working at odd jobs. He apparently enjoyed the physical labor and the idea that oysters are entirely self-sustaining and help cleanse bay water.

Environmentalists scoff at the idea, noting that as attorney general, Cuccinelli spent several years investigating Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climatologist who noted that humans were responsible for the generation of more carbon dioxide emissions and that has brought on climate change.

Some have pointed out that if Cuccinelli had had his way, he would have helped quash climate science, generated even more global warming and sped up the inundation of Tangier Island by rising water levels.

It will be interesting to see if Cuccinelli intends to rebrand himself for future political campaigns and how he tries to reinvent himself.

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.

Rising College Costs Hit the Poor the Hardest

by James A. Bacon

In 2009 President Barack Obama set a goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. To reach that goal, more than 65% of individuals between 25 and 34 need to possess a college degree. Things aren’t working out well.

Conclude the authors of a new report, “The Effects of Rising Student Costs in Higher Education,” by Ithaka S+R, a not-for-profit consulting and research service:

Declining state appropriations and increasing reliance on tuition revenue have substantially increased the cost of public education to Virginia students, and the trend has accelerated since the Great Recession that began in 2007. Rising costs have deterred students from remaining in college and completing their degrees, and the lowest-income students have been hit the hardest.

Drawing upon an exceptional richness of data in Virginia, the authors of the Ithaka report used the Old Dominion to illustrate trends that are national in scope. Like Virginia, other states have cut state support for higher education, and colleges and universities have increased tuition and fees aggressively to make up the difference. While higher ed institutions also have bolstered financial aid to lower-income students, that aid has not kept pace with the increase in tuition and fees. The inflation-adjusted net cost — defined as the difference between a student’s estimated cost of attendance and total amount of gift aid — has risen steadily.

net_costs

Source: “The Effects of Rising Student Costs in Higher Education”

Between 1997 and 2007, net costs for the poorest quintile of Virginia students actually fell, while it rose for middle-class and affluent quintiles. But the trend has reversed in the past five years, with net costs increasing more rapidly for the poor. (While the report does not emphasize this, the net cost for lower-income students is less than two-thirds that of the most affluent students, and their net costs have risen less rapidly over the entire 15-year period.)

institutional_groupings

Source: “The Effects of Rising Student Costs in Higher Education”

The Ithaka report distinguishes between what it terms “Lower Dependence on the State” (LDS) institutions and “Higher Dependence on the State” (HDL) institutions. (The institutions deemed less dependent include The University of Virginia, College of William & Mary, George Mason University, Virginia Military Institute, Virginia Military Institute, Virginia Commonwealth University, James Madison University and Virginia Tech.) LDS institutions have more flexibility in their tuition strategies and have been more successful in recruiting out-of-state students willing to pay the full freight. HDS institutions are dominated by in-state students and have fewer resources to provide financial aid. Those institutions find the current environment especially challenging:

Tuition charges may be reaching their market limit at many of these institutions, and further increases could both adversely impact institutional finances and endanger the goals of ensuring quality and broad access for students across the state. HDS institutions, in particular, appear to have reached — or come close to — this limit, as they were unable to increase tuition charges enough to offset the most recent funding cuts and have thereby seen declines in total revenue per student. …

These financial strains may force institutions to choose between sacrificing either access or quality (or some combination of both), particularly for low- and middle-income students.

If the public goal is to educate and graduate as many students as possible from four year students and to reduce gaps between socioeconomic groups, concludes Ithaka, something has to change. Ithaka recommends increasing state support for higher education and targeting those funds to reduce net costs for lower-income students. Also, recognizing the limited ability of state legislatures to increase funding, the authors also urge colleges and universities to “re-engineer their systems to become significantly more efficient … which means that they have to find ways to adjust their own underlying costs.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The Ithaka study has many useful things to say, but I question the underlying premise — that it is feasible for 65% of future generations of Americans to graduate from four-year institutions of higher learning. I would advance the proposition, for purposes of stimulating discussion, that (a) the goal is unachievable given the current state of K-12 education in America today, and (b) it does a dis-service to lower-income students who lose income by attending college instead of working, rack up significant student debt and never end up acquiring the credential — a Bachelor’s Degree — that will improve their opportunities in the job market.

The fact is, Virginia high schools are graduating thousands of students who are ill-prepared for college. Poor students drop out at a disproportionate rates not only because finances are a burden, but because they often find the course work to be beyond their capabilities. Expanding college enrollment without addressing the disparities in education at the K-12 (or even the pre-K) level is setting up poor students for failure and a lifetime of indebtedness. Under the guise of doing good, this policy does great harm.