The Reform Agenda of Virginia’s Higher-Ed Critics

While the higher-ed lobby blames cutbacks in state support for the soaring cost of higher education, the Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust (a sponsor of this blog) are advancing the argument that colleges should take responsibility for their own actions. And the Partners are advancing an agenda that goes beyond simple caps on tuition increases in order to achieve fundamental governance reform.

The justification for reform is well known: Tuition for public colleges has risen 74% on average over the past 10 years while inflation has increased only 20%. Virginia baccalaureates are graduating with an average of $30,000 in student debt. Eighty-five percent of Virginians say college isn’t affordable, and 70% said in a 2017 poll that it was very important for policy makers to lower the cost of a college degree.

The Partners advance a six-point platform for Virginia:

  1. Freeze tuition to provide relief for debt-ridden students and parents. This set of proposals also would limit increases in room and board to the Consumer Price Index, and would cap the percentage of out-of-state-students.
  2. Require performance and outcome-based state funding to get at the root of the problem. Other than enrollment, there are no discernible criteria for distributing money to public colleges and universities. The Partners’ proposal would distribute half of all higher-ed appropriations according to outcomes-based metrics such as the percentage of Virginia students enrolled, tuition rates, student graduation rates, average time of degree completion, student employment rates, and median salaries six months after graduation.
  3. Like other Virginia state boards and agencies, require public comment at universities to give voice to students and parents. Virginia law requires that colleges and universities give public notice of planned tuition increases, but provides no provision for public comment.
  4. Eliminate special carve-outs giving FOIA working paper exemptions to college presidents that restrict the public’s view of how public funds are spent. Decision-making at higher-ed institutions is opaque an insulated from public scrutiny. The system could benefit from greater transparency.
  5. Restore public trust by defining a board’s primary duty as to the Commonwealth and her citizens. Appointees to college governing boards, usually alumni, tend to be co-opted by the administration and buy into presidents’ visions for institutional advancement. Many boards rubber stamp administrative proposals. The state code should define university trustees’ primary duty as to the Commonwealth and its citizens.
  6. Re-label “Board of Visitors” to “Board of Trustees” to align with national standards. The name change is symbolic but it puts the emphasis on trust.

Bacon’s bottom line:

Overall, this is an excellent set of proposals. It doesn’t just strike out blindly against tuition increases, it takes a comprehensive look at governance reform. I’m ambivalent about the General Assembly imposing a tuition freeze, for reasons that I will explain in a future blog post, although I readily concede that sometimes the only way to fix a problem is with a blunt instrument. I’m also disappointed that the transparency measures don’t include my pet proposal for the collection of additional data that would enable administrators, boards, and the public to evaluate staff and faculty productivity — a driving force behind rising tuition costs. Those caveats aside, I don’t see how any reasonable person could disagree with most of the principles articulated here.

I will be examining some of the issues in depth in future blog posts.

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6 responses to “The Reform Agenda of Virginia’s Higher-Ed Critics”

  1. How about also forcing the colleges to justify and show the business plan, to include how each will benefit the students and why it is being undertaken, what shortfall it is correcting, etc. for all activities outside of the classroom? A great example is WHY does Virginia Tech has a passport office in the Student Center? Especially when the US Post Office less than a mile from campus has one.

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I have little confidence in metrics. Far too often they acerbate problems. Take retention rates. They hide problems.

    Our real problems are cultural and ethical. We must find ways to restore our means and ethics to teach again. This means finding ways to insure and enforce standards of acceptable and unacceptable conduct in accademics, including the power to label excellence, mediocre, and failing performance, and render appropriate consequences.

    Amazingly today, that is apparently a radical idea in our schools of higher education. But without such reforms our teachers and institutions can accomplish little or nothing but mostly injustice for everyone involved, whether they be teachers, students, and administrators. For, only with such standards, can we recognize and reward good teaching, and restore the job of good teaching to the high status that its deserves, and must enjoy in all our institutions of higher learning, if teachers are have the tools to do their job. Only then can we restore the respect and authority within the classrooms that our good teachers deserve and need. So we must stop coddling students. They should have no right to judge and grade teachers. That is not their job. Their job is to learn. So we must find ways to enforce real learning by students, and give that power to enforce it back to the teachers. Without that power teachers are neutered and disrespected. We must require them to grade on a curve and mandate consequences for excellent, Okay, and bad performance, including flunking out.

    In short we must get serious about education, and be proud of it.

  3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    The Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust opine that “Decision-making at higher-ed institutions is opaque and insulated from public scrutiny. The system could benefit from greater transparency.”

    When people holding a public trust spend hundred of millions of dollars of public money, why would these very same people rig the system to make sure that their decisions are “opaque and insulated” from public scrutiny?

    Don’t the citizens who hold this public trust receive these vast sums of public money only on their express promise that they will spend these monies to educate the children of those who pay the money to them?

    Are these public monies not paid in trust to educate our kids?

    These people run a public institution owned by the state. That institution of higher education is charged to educate the children of the state. Why would citizens charged to make that happen hide the sources of that public institution’s revenues, such as Strategic Investment Fund, and also hide how, when, and for what purposes, that public institution spends its money?

    Why is the plain truth about how the money is collected and from whom, and where the money is spent, who gets it, and for what purpose, is never made plain and transparent to the public? But instead become facts hidden from the public?

    Why? Why does this happen year after year?

    Any intelligent and rational person can only assume that these plain and simple facts are hidden because these people members and their allies DO NOT WANT THE PUBLIC TO KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING WITH THE PUBLIC’S MONEY. And, in particular, that they do not want the public to know how little of it goes to actually educate their children.

    Why is this not a sure sign of obvious corruption and arrogance?

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I understand the rationale for the government’s command and control including prices is rooted in the fact that the govt provides some funding but imagine other things the govt funds like Medicaid and “freezing costs” and requiring performance-based metrics, more transparency and more citizen involvement.

    I actually could go along with some of it but the idea the govt is going to determine prices whether for higher ed or Medicaid or anything else is just loony and NOT at all in any way, shape or form a Conservative ethic.

    Jim and others no doubt will come back and say that the govt is trying to make sure they are running efficiently, not have too many administrators or mandatory fees, etc.. but STILL – you’re advocating the govt inserting itself in a business and deciding what services should be offered for how much and price and that’s a FAIL!

    I’ll go along with the mandated transparency and even some citizen involvement and participation and perhaps even some reconfiguration of the BOVs but I draw the line at the govt fixing prices and determining how many employees and what kind, etc…

    Govt price fixing NEVER WORKS… and any self-respecting Conservative will tell you that and EVEN most lefty liberals will agree.

    Even worse.. this is looking at ONE kind of Higher Ed.. not Community Colleges, no for-profits, not private .. it’s like the Govt saying certain popular models of Chevy cannot increase in price because they become popular and the company increases price …

    ..or the Govt telling Walmart that because the govt gives some of their customers food stamps that prices for food cannot go up faster than the overall rate of inflation or some such.

    somehow people think that Higher Ed is “different” and that they don’t “deserve” to be free of govt control.. but it’s a bad idea no matter where , in my view – and I THOUGHT most Conservatives.

    1. You’re advocating the govt inserting itself in a business and deciding what services should be offered for how much and price and that’s a FAIL!

      Just curious, Larry, did you notice this line: “I’m ambivalent about the General Assembly imposing a tuition freeze, for reasons that I will explain in a future blog post.”

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    I DID see that but several blog posts in the past – I never got the impression you were opposed to the govt setting prices for tuition.. you always made the case that tuition was too high ..not justified…etc.. and somehow the Govt needed to do something about it…

    wrong? Have you now . … “evolved”?

    Funny thing is , I DO THINK the govt SHOULD regulate… especially on transparency like FOIA… and these days it’s Conservatives that are backing up on FOIA.. (like the courts)…

    But I look forward to your future post on whether the govt should actually mandate or regulate ..prices… for Higher Ed!!!

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