What’s Wrong with UVa, and What’s Not

Photo credit: Washington Post

There is something wrong with a university that sits on an endowment of $8.6 billion while raising the cost of an undergraduate tuition to $63,000 a year for out-of-state students and $32,000 a year for in-state students, writes Brendan Novak, opinion editor for the Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia student newspaper.

Novak goes on to make some very good points and some very misguided ones. Both are worthy of discussion.

First, Novak decries the idea of UVa as a “Public Ivy.”

The label “Public Ivy” reeks of a desperation for prestige that is increasingly characteristic of schools like the University. Traditional Ivy League schools have known for centuries that wealth confers status and status confers wealth, and now that public schools like the University have caught on, they seem committed to emulating this model. From a self-serving perspective, this might appear to be a positive development — one could reasonably expect students to celebrate the University’s pursuit of prestige. It’s true, the University’s growing prominence only serves to better the opportunities available to students — and yet it’s hard to not find this obsession with cultural eminence fundamentally troubling. The University is first and foremost a public institution, and its pursuit of elite status detracts from its primary responsibility — to serve the Commonwealth.

Outside of the career schools, higher education in the United States is a non-profit endeavor. Colleges and universities are not profit-maximizing institutions. Rather, they are prestige-maximizing institutions. Elite institutions such as UVa are engaged in a never-ending prestige “arms race” to increase prestige — measured by student SAT scores, the volume of research, faculty distinction, and the like — even while the Harvards, Yales, MITs, and Stanfords seek to preserve or improve their own rankings. There is no limit to institutions’ creativity in devising costly new ways to recruit star students and star faculty; hence there is no upward limit on how much they crave in tuition revenue and endowment size.

So, Novak is quite correct: Insofar as UVa is obsessed with achieving parity with the most prestigious nationally ranked universities in the country, it is detracting from its primary responsibility to serve the Commonwealth.

But then he goes astray. He faults UVa for its under-representation of underprivileged Virginians.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1-in-10 residents live below the federal poverty line. … At the University on the other hand, almost the same proportion of undergraduate students come from the top 1 percent of wealth. Further, two-thirds of students come from the top 20 percent, while less than 3 percent come from the bottom 20. In an ideal world, public schools like the University would be powerhouses of economic mobility, granting underprivileged students a state-subsidized ticket to the middle class. …

Whether it’s a problem of outreach, financials or community development, it is clear that the University could be doing much more to make meaningful inroads into low-income communities.

If the University of Virginia were the only public university in Virginia, Novak might have a point. But UVa is only one of fifteen public four-year institutions in the Virginia higher education system. The system, not UVa, has an obligation to provide “under-privileged students a state-subsidized ticket to the middle class.”

There is nothing wrong with having institutions that are elite by Virginia standards. As Virginia’s flagship university, UVa sets the highest merit-based admission standards and provides the most rigorous academic education (with the possible exception of the College of William & Mary). Given the powerful correlation between socio-economic status and academic achievement in high school, it is inevitable that the UVa student body will be compromised disproportionately of students from higher-income households. The university provides generous financial assistance to the small number of students from lower-income households who defy the odds and become high academic achievers. No one is turned away for an inability to pay the tuition. The barrier to having more lower-income students at UVa isn’t insufficient financial aid, it’s the lack of lower-income students who meet the admissions qualifications. That is the fault of failing K-12 institutions, or perhaps society at large, not UVa.

Practically speaking, the only way to achieve Novak’s goal of greater socioeconomic diversity is to lower admissions qualifications. Does anyone want UVa to relax standards — especially when considering that there are numerous other institutions in Virginia that are well equipped to educate students with less-rarefied credentials?

Speaking as a Virginia citizen and a UVa alumnus, I want to see UVa continue to strive for excellence, but not at the expense of displacing more Virginia students or making the cost of attendance more financially burdensome for qualifying middle-class students. There is a proper balance, and UVa hasn’t achieved it. But adopting Novak’s critique would push university priorities even further off kilter. The solution would be worse than the cure.

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18 responses to “What’s Wrong with UVa, and What’s Not

  1. As far as I can see, 29 states operate their public universities as systems. Virginia is not one of the 29. Many of the 29 have sterling reputations for their public universities – California, Michigan and Texas for example.

    What are the relative pros and cons of operating a state university system vs a disconnected series of state universities?

    • Why don’t we have a system? It’s a story of parochialism in NoVa and Norfolk.

      U.Va. founded George Mason and supervised Mary Washington. Both were governed by U.Va. until they decided they wanted to be independent and the General Assembly acquiesced in their desires.

      ODU and Christopher Newport were divisions of the William & Mary (and the short lived “Colleges of William & Mary”). Both decided they wanted to be independent of William & Mary and the General Assembly granted that independence.

      Virginia doesn’t have a system due to politics. In practice, here is what a system would do with Virginia higher ed (and imagine how many toes would be stepped on):

      A.) U.Va. would be acknowledged as the state flagship school. It would receive more money and its interests would guide the system’s governance. However, it would have to expand and accept a higher % of in-state students.

      B.) Any rational system would consolidate Radford and Virginia Tech. The most absurd aspect of Virginia higher ed is the fact that we have 2 large public universities (with duplicative programs, services, and administrations) sitting 20 miles apart in the least populated area of the state.

      C.) The same analysis would have to be performed with even more sensitivity in Tidewater. Anyone want to explain why we have CNU, ODU, and Norfolk State as separate schools in the same geographic area? There are explanations from last century, but do they hold up in 2018?

      Norfolk State is an HBCU, and it is true that some states have HBCUs near other large state universities (NCCU being close to NCSU and UNC-CH comes to mind), so maybe the unique educational experience of an HBCU justifies it not consolidating with ODU. But why not consolidate CNU into ODU?

      D.) William & Mary is a historical anomaly. It was private until the Civil War almost destroyed it. Then the state took over in the late 19th century. It is a great school, but it needs to be privatized. The state should not be subsidizing a very elite liberal arts school. It’s not like privatization would hurt W&M at all.

  2. DJ is on the right track…. ” 29 states operate their public universities”. What does the State of Virginia want to achieve with respect to higher Ed?

    And no – you should not lower standards – at all – even for Virginia students – rich or poor – none should be at 4-yr institutions to start with if they have to be “remediated”. Remediation needs to be done at a different level than the 4 year institutions. And those that do not achieve the academic level needed to attend 4 year – need to be re-directed to 2 year and occupational certifications.

    The 4yr institutions have much less responsibility to make college “affordable” than the State itself does because as DJ intimated – when you delegate that – you don’t necessarily get what is expected but rather 29 different concepts, none of which take affordability as their primary mission.

    4 yr institutions primary mission is to sustain themselves in terms of remaining in demand so that enrollment demand stays strong.

    The state can go a long way towards fixing this by giving vouchers which let students pick and introduce competition… Such vouchers would also direct those who need remediation to the proper places to get it – and those who are not 4 year college material – to alternatives that will still give them an education that will get them a job in the economy.

    we are just totally screwed up how we do higher ed these days. We have way too many people who want something for their own selves – whether it makes sense as policy or not. The State needs to take a leadership role in education – and health care… That is what government is for.

  3. I agree with Jim’s post. Lowering the standards of academic achievements for student admissions to UVA is a cure far worse than the disease. If there is an undeniable advantage to UVA students, it is the fact that they were admitted to UVA.

    Beyond that advantage to UVA students, however, things become very murky for most students. Put another way, UVA as a teaching institution is operating far below its potential, indeed scandalously below its potential. And far too often UVA does far more harm to students than it benefits them once admitted.

    • UVA also does great harm to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Look at the gross dysfunction of the town of Charlottesville for example. Look at the war of competition between universities in Virginia, as another example. There is a system of higher education in Virginia. It is corrupt and sick. The fact it may compare favorably with some of the other states means nothing.

  4. If Virginia’s public universities and colleges were operated in the private sector, there would be a strategic plan that addressed all institutions and the roles each plays. While there are significant commonalities among all institutions, there is no compelling reason each should play an identical role. Indeed, some institutions might be quite similar in mission, but located to serve different parts of the state. Similarly, while each institution would have some overlap in basic instruction, care should be given to ensure there wasn’t inefficient and unplanned duplication of expensive programs.

    Such a strategic plan should have input from the affected institutions themselves, but also from a wide variety of non-affiliated stakeholders.

  5. I totally agree that Colleges should each have their own unique identity, programs, etc… in all areas – except when it comes to State aid for expected
    results.

    In that regard – what the State does or does not do – should be with respect to students and a consistent, fair and equitable approach – to the student.

    Giving money to the various schools with an expectation of “affordability” is a fools errand. Each school is going to roll that aid in different and unique ways – and most of all – not necessarily to the benefit of those who need aid. That’s just the reality of giving a pot of money to an institution with some vague expectation of “affordability” – that is not even defined in an reasonable real world metric other than the inane “it costs too much”.

    If you give the aid to the student – and let the student choose – then it will engender competition… and if affordability is a desired “want” then the “market” will respond. That has a lot better chance of succeeding that giving pots of money for some nebulous and undefined “affordability” expectation.

    Virginia does not have a responsibility to higher ed – it has a responsibility to it’s citizens who are seeking higher ed and that ought to be the goal. Clearly Higher Ed is already focused on their own wants and needs – to the point where it does not really include “affordability” other than lip service… whatever they think it will take to keep the GA off their case except for a few activists…

    When I look at the SATs for higher ed – and at the same time I hear that incoming students need remediation – AND they’re going to get it at the college they do not yet qualify for admittance AND they are going to get a government-subsidized loan to pay for that remediation… something is rotten in Denmark…

    What this is really about is not the poor have access to higher ed, but the middle class – and not entrance into any higher ed but admittance into a prestigious higher ed – that is “affordable”. Geeze.

    There ARE already LOTS of choices for higher ed.. more than 80 non-commercial higher ed in Virginia – not counting the Community Colleges and counting the for-profit sector. There are a lot of ways to get a higher level education – and the sorry fact is – that many of the non-traditional ways will get you a good job in the economy and a plain jane degree from even UVA might land you in a Starbucks…

    • Virginia provides a $2,000 (or maybe it’s $3,000) tax credit for students attending private colleges in Virginia. Perhaps state aid for public education should be converted to tax credits for students attending public institutions as well. Empower students, not institutions. Public colleges and universities would have to be more responsive to students and less responsive to politicians — a good thing, I think.

  6. The purpose of these schools is to offer young people a chance at an education, with the focus on Virginia families. It is not to pour prestige all over their future resumes. It is not to convert public assets into private assets with goals that divert from the people who own the buildings and grounds, and who grant tax exempt status – the biggest subsidy of all.

    So let me get this right Jim – you are fine with higher and higher entrance standards, more and more implied prestige as the preferred choice to letting in more Virginians who might be 100 points lower on their SATs (or their parent’s credit rating?) The only way to get more students of color would be to lower those entrance standards? Let ’em go somewhere else! Are there no workhouses??!

    Tax 100 percent of endowment income which is not being actually spent on students, research, academic buildings or some other approved purpose. Maintain the deduction for donations, but tax the fallow income. Same for hospitals, same for churches. I just posted a note dissing the libertarians, but the socialists are starting to get my attention…..their only problem is they focus on capitalists (that would be me) and miss the real bad actors in the misnamed not for profit arena. It’s profitable as hell.

    • I’m fine with UVa engaging in aggressive outreach to disadvantaged minorities — as long as it maintains the same admission standards for them as they do for whites and Asians… which it appears to be doing. I’ve criticized UVa for many things, but I think its admissions policies are defensible.

      Interesting idea about taxing endowments. The nonprofit sector, including foundations, hospitals, universities, and advocacy groups, is out of control. These groups have accumulated trillions of dollars in assets, and many are unaccountable to anyone other than lapdog boards of directors.

      • And any change in admission standards that creates a bit more flexibility in admissions should apply across the board.

        And I’m getting more and more enamored of the idea of making the TAG grant the main subsidy vehicle for public and private schools. Worth a discussion of how that would change the game. (There it is – now this Governor won’t let me back on SCHEV either….)

        Lord, did you hear the institutions whine about that small endowment tax proposed in the recent federal tax bill? It was delicious. Socialism works great for social institutions.

        • Well.. as usual… listening to others makes me realize how ignorant I am of much , in this case the TAG grants in Virginia.

          At first blush, they struck me as a subsidy to private colleges but then further reading explains that they were actually approved as a change to the Virginia Constitution by voters in a referenda …

          and in the end – they do exactly what I have expressed support for – help for the student who then chooses where to attend – with one major caveat … why is this just for private colleges in Va and not all to included public 4yr and Community Colleges and even for-profits that meet standards for “real” degrees…or certifications?

          Our goal in Virginia – our responsibility – is to citizens – for those citizens to get enough education that will qualify them for a job in the economy. It’s good for the citizen and it’s good for the Commonwealth to get more taxpayers and fewer entitlement takers.

          Who would logically be opposed to such a concept?

          It not only helps citizens get an education – it’s lets them choose where to go – commensurate with their high school academic credentials and actually might direct those with lower SAT scores to Community Colleges and other vocational certifications that would get them a real job quicker in the current economy?

          And yes…why not help fund it with appropriate taxes on things like endowments…

          That’s a much broader and noble goal than trying to give money to prestigious higher ed in hopes that they’ll keep costs down for the middle class aspirants.

          So Bacon has blogged about tax credits.. how about a blog post on the TAG program in Virginia so we all can benefit from more knowledge on the subject?

    • Very well said. There are great truths in what you say. I would register caution, however, in reducing admissions standards to the point of harming the quality of education in an institution for all concerned. As others here have pointed out, there are schools for every kid in Virginia, save for those on the lower half of the academic talent scale. The fact that one half of Virginia’s population is not only under-served, but is routinely ripped off, insulted, ignored and shamed is immoral and a disgrace.

      But so is reducing admissions standards to set quotas based on the color of someone’s skin. Sending kids to schools where they cannot succeed, or where the odds against success are stacked against them, is also immoral. Making them or others pay for that immorality doubles the crime. We see the harm done by these pernicious policies of social engineering played out every day. However unfortunate, SAT scores are highly predictive of success in particular institutions. This has been proven time and again. A swing of a 100 points far more often than not carries with it enormous irremediable consequence, as to the narrow bundle of qualities needed to succeed in the higher realms of pure academic achievement. Just like most every other demanding field of endeavor has its own bundle of specialized talents.

      Thirdly, research should not be allowed to impair education in the slightest. Now it impairs education grievously in most first tier universities. That too is an immoral disgrace. Not because research is bad. In fact it is critically important. But because our corrupt character as humans allow research to eat education of students alive in most of our elite universities today.

      • Lets put some flesh on the bare bones of my above assertion.

        As well documented on this blog, today’s tragedy in elite higher education hangs between two central pillars of dysfunction – research and teaching. Today’s system of higher education forces research to war against teaching. As a result, the great bulk of money raised by, and spend on, our elite public universities fail to benefit the education of their students. Hence much of the vast sums of money ponied up by students, their parents, and taxpayers is wasted or at best spent in highly ineffective and unfair ways.

        As a direct consequence, Higher Education fails to educate the vast majority of elite students, whether it be in terms of any verifiable results, and/or in improving the quality of the teaching they receive in the classroom, and/or in the amount of time that highly competent teachers devote to teaching them, and/or to increasing the quality and substance of the subject matter being taught students.

        In short, what elite Virginia education needs is better teachers empowered and committed to spending vastly more of their time and resources to personally teaching great and rigorous courses to willing and able students under a teaching regime where excellence is demanded on the part of teachers and students. And where results are verified. And consequences are rendered for failure.

        Why these failures in educating the great majority of our elite students? And why is it that the more money we spend, the less education most our elite students get? Again it is the war between teaching and research.

        Research inflates the status of professors. It drives up their pay, reputation, security and tenure. Thanks to ill-conceived rankings based on false values, this research also drives up the status and prestige of their university. This drives professors and universities to do ever more research, irrespective of the quality of its outcome, and to do ever less teaching that drives down their status, power, and salary.

        These powerful forces, working in combination, also breed junk research that undermines good science. And it forces universities to subsidize out of its own pocket ever more research. Since the cost of most research far exceeds the revenues it generates, this drives up the cost of tuition, while it drives down the quality of the teaching of students as the university diverts their tuition monies from paying teachers to paying research costs for ever more equipment, labs or researchers salaries. This is a death spiral. It forces costs ever higher. Meanwhile it drains ever more funds away from teaching. And the adverse consequences are cumulative, spiraling outward. For example, the death spiral forces ever more students to saddle themselves with ever more debt to feed the beast they keep trying to ride to get a degree whose value declines year by year. These death spirals always end in the collapse of the system. Why? Because the system operates on a lie. It is a Ponzi scheme. The lie is the asserting that elite students are paying these high and ever rising tuition costs in return of their own world class education.

        While is this a lie? Where is the proof. Consider this contrast professors:

        Teaching deflates the status of professors. Teaching drives down their pay, reputation, security and tenure. And, as tenure and tenure track professors at elite institutions flee teaching for research, the elite universities are forced to hire more and more low wage and low benefit, short-term teachers to teach ever more students in ever fewer classrooms, for cost efficiencies at the expense of learning. This forces these low wage low security teachers into a nomadic existence, often traveling between universities weekly, to earn enough to live on.

        This also puts these teachers increasingly at the mercy of student evaluations. Grades inflate and junk courses spread as demands for study, testing and learning all plummet. And, as tenured and tenured track professors flee the elite classrooms, entertainment venues spread throughout the classrooms and campuses of elite universities to fill the vast gaps of empty time that open in the students’ day, given the lack of serious resources and energy and demands then devoted to teaching. Here we see binge drinking, partying and sex hook ups, and students plunging into virtual realities. This breeds bad lifestyles in students, causing them harms of all kinds, damage done to them at universities that can easily last a lifetime, as our universities strip their students of their culture, education and character.

        Thus, the harm spreads and compounds as research and teaching war with one another. And, all involved suffer, save for the few elite who run this system at the expense of everyone else as costs go through the roof to keep this Ponzi scheme running to enrich those few rulers.

        But why should we be surprised. Institutions and the people who run them without accountability can never be trusted. This is particularly true for people who act in secret while they refuse to be held accountable.

        SEE https://www.baconsrebellion.com/making-case-higher-ed-investment/

  7. A lot of good comments here. I think public higher education should not have been instituted in the way it was in the U.S., with public universities being directly subsidized by the state. I think it should have been done more along the lines of a TAG system for public and private, perhaps similar to the way the UK system works, with the grant going to the individual. I don’t see the current system changing, though.

    I also agree that the role of non-profits needs to be looked at in healthcare and higher education. In healthcare, I think non-profit status is leading to reduced competition as these non-profit behemoths squelch competition in their regions with their preferred tax status. In higher education, endowments compound untaxed at institutions where it is a stretch to say the non-profit status actually serves the public good (think Princeton and its $22+B endowment for about 8K students).

    Healthcare and higher education come together in large universities. As an example, Jim cites UVA $8.6B endowment in the article. I’m sure many would like to think this all came from generous private sector donors, but my estimate would be at least 30% of it actually came from what were “quasi-endowments” originating on the health care side. (The percentage of VCU’s $1.6B endowment originating from the health care side is probably well over 50%. Ever wonder why VCU has a significantly larger endowment than Virginia Tech or why VT wanted to create a medical school/health system?) So a non-profit hospital has actually turned a profit based on patient fees (private insurance, medicare, medicaid, out of pocket), and the money is now controlled by the administration and the Board of Visitors. And as indicated before, a lot of it it accumulates through compounded tax-free growth.

    One more note. The public/private distinction is already a fallacy. Private schools receive public benefits from 1) tax exempt status 2) government grants for research, etc. and 3) subsidized student grants and loans. If you include all of this, Princeton receives 10X the public benefit of the average public school.

  8. These are very insightful comments Izzo. For example:

    The hospital connection, the milking of “patient fees (private insurance, medicare, medicaid, out of pocket)” that you brought to light earlier, has not received the prominence and scrutiny that it has long deserved. It is yet another corruption hidden within a thoroughly corrupt system. Imagine, it is incredible, but also true that university health care is as corrupt in its our way and means as Division 1 university basketball that is riddled with corruption.

    Your other comments are also highly significant. They puncture the grand myth that the “Ivies” are private institutions when in fact their vast and ever growing wealth, bloated now to obscene proportions, more and more today give them monopolistic power and unassailable financial advantage, over the entire system of American higher education with ever more power and advantage built on the backs of taxpayers and thoroughly corrupt public policies enacted and maintained by their own elite graduates who pull the levers of power, hand out public monies of this nation, and exempt it from taxation for the benefit of their alma maters.

    Of course, as you point out, this also applies to non-profits such as Inova. Hence the joint venture of Inova / UVa medical center in Northern Virginia is designed to be a cash cow crony monopoly built out of crony capitalism of the worst sort, posing as a great savior working in the public interests. This sounds harsh. It is and it is well deserved. In life one can never separate ways and means from ends. All three, working in collusion, will inevitably corrupt the result, and end up corrupting that end absolutely. For example, the long term chronic problem of infections of patients at UVA hospital.

  9. Good comments from Reed. He’s been trying to light the kindling under this issue for a while and I do hope it gets the fact-based consideration it deserves.

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