More Lazy Thinking about the Higher-Ed Affordability Crisis

Image credit: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

So, I was reading this op-ed piece in Inside NoVa by David S. Kerr, an instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University, in which he took the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly to task for slashing state support for higher education, increasing tuition levels, and rising student indebtedness. Then I got to the following paragraph:

States from New York to Nebraska have increased direct support to their university systems. State universities are a point of pride, particularly so out west, and states believe in supporting them–even in some of the reddest of red states. Virginia, however, as measured on a per student basis, has progressively cut state support for universities.

I wondered if that was an accurate portrayal. After Googling around, I found a recent report by the left-of-center Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which published the chart above. As it turns out, New York cut higher-ed spending per student between 2008 and 2017 only 2.0%, and Nebraska increased spending by 0.2%. But thirty other states have cut higher-ed spending more than Virginia. Kerr isn’t telling the whole story.

Then he goes on:

Also, costs have gone up. They have to. Buildings wear out and technology needs to be updated. All sorts of scientifically based curricula require new, expensive equipment. There are also various administrative requirements, mandated by the state and the federal government, that the schools have to pay for. At the same time, faculty and non-faculty employees need to be competitively paid.

Oh, gee, costs have gone up. What that settles it. Just throw up your arms because there’s nothing else  you can do. But someone forgot to tell Mitch Daniels. The former Indiana Governor took the helm at Purdue University in January 2013 vowing to make the public university more affordable.

After a 36-year string of increases, Purdue commenced a series of tuition freezes in 2013 that will last through the 2018-19 academic year. Daniels streamlined purchasing. He sold redundant property, reduced the cost of rental storage by half, and mended used office furniture. The university cut room and board costs by 5%. A partnership with slashed the cost of textbooks 31% on average. Thanks to these and other initiatives, Purdue student borrowing has dropped 37%.

As for those employees who “need to be competitively paid,” let me tell you how that works. Virginia colleges benchmark their faculty pay against that of institutions in other states and say, “We’ve got to raise pay to stay competitive.” This year the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia is recommending $84.3 million in extra state support (no guarantee it will get it) to keep faculty salaries competitive. Of course, higher-ed systems in other states are benchmarking as well, and they’re pushing for the same salary increases. And so the merry-go-round spins and spins.

Here in the Old Dominion, there’s still plenty of slack in the system. Universities can squeeze business process costs. They can cut administrative staff. They can curtail costly athletic programs. They can demand that faculty members teach more and publish less. They can harness online learning to provide classes at other institutions. They can utilize data analytics to spot struggling students and provide them the tutoring and mentoring they need to graduate on time.

Admittedly, cuts to state support in higher ed hasn’t made the job of Virginia colleges and universities any easier but the industry is rife with opportunity for cost cutting. The General Assembly bears a share of the blame for the higher-ed affordability crisis, but to pretend the problem starts and ends there is intellectually dishonest.

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12 responses to “More Lazy Thinking about the Higher-Ed Affordability Crisis”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    When SCHEV does its benchmarking of salaries it it vs public universities or all universities? Are costs of living taken into account? Or is Blacksburg considered the same as NYU / Manhattan for the purposes of SCHEV?

  2. I think it benchmarks them against schools that are deemed to be similar in nature and mission, both private and public. Presumably they would be competing against these schools for hires, etc.

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    While on SCHEV I recall a time when a school (can’t remember exactly which) amended the list of peer schools is used for those salary comparisons. With the new listing suddenly its salaries were way, way behind its peers! You can get any result you want. Yep, the folks at Perdue are showing the way but so far it is a short parade.

    Useful chart, Jim – thanks. I never thought Virginia was the only state squeezing down on state support, but always saw a national trend. We do look better in comparison. But then it begs an interesting question, because I think a chart on net cost to in-state students would still show VA higher than many of those states.

  4. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    This is a perfect example of why I have an initial distrust of people’s arguments in favor of more spending on their projects/departments/compensation. It doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong, but it’s pretty easy to tweak data in a manner that supports the desired conclusion.

    As for benchmarking, the local school districts in the Metro Washington area have done this for years. Every school district argues for more money to bring their teacher compensation to the top of the list. Once I asked, “How is this different from GM, Ford and Chrysler benchmarking vehicle quality against each other back in the 1970s?”

    While I have some issues with Fairfax County employee compensation, at least it looks at a broader view – other cities and counties, state and federal government, nonprofits, and even some private sector jobs. After gathering this data, the County tries to peg its compensation to the middle. While there are some problems in the execution, the theory makes more sense than a bid to reach the top, especially when there is little evidence reaching the top would provide measurable benefits to the residents of Fairfax County.

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “More Lazy Thinking about the Higher-Ed Affordability Crisis,” Jim’s title is apt to a point. But I fear he is too charitable.

    Rather I am reminded of the old humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, feeling like a snail in its shell in 1533, a time of hiding amid his life spent on the run.

    You see, Erasmus had never been a team player. His independence he guarded above all else. He’d turned down Popes, their offers of comfort, safety, and security in return for his silence in the face of papal power games, their intrigue and illicit maneuvers for private advantage.

    Erasmus bowed to no corruption. His quest was truth, however illusive he knew it was. And however difficult and painful it was for its seeker to grasp and haul up into the light.


    Most, rich or poor, hate or fear truth, its glare and surprise. Most especially the privileged, advantaged and powerful. So for them, Erasmus rained down trouble, despite his best intentions.

    So, back then in the 16th century, Erasmus rained hell down on whole faculties of scholastics, the vast majority teaching nonsense throughout the great universities of Europe.

    And he rattled hell down on rafts of monks and priests, high and low, selling snake oil in cathedrals, priories, and chapels, as they wielded superstition, sin and false piety to ripe off the faithful in their care, for their own enrichment.

    And on the Reformers too, even the great Martin Luther.

    These comments were adapted from The Erasmus Option by Gregory Wolfe, publisher and editor of Image, a journal of Art, Faith, and Mystery. Here is how he posited the problem back then:

    “It is the dawn of the Reformation, and both Protestants and Catholics have fractured into a hydra-headed beast at war with itself. When one head appears cut off another two spring up in its place. Erasmus has been bitten by most of them. (His literary life was that of a critic and satirist.) He has decried the tendency of his age to substitute the observance of exterior form for genuine, interior devotion and virtue. He’s been hell on the monks and priests who have preyed upon the superstitions and pieties of the common folk, peddling indulgences and dubious relics, reducing true religion to magic and formalism. He’d also mocked the third rate scholasticism of his day – which had degenerated from the time of Thomas Aquinas – for its tendency to devolve into intellectual abstraction and moral conundrums. In his great cosmic masterpiece, the Praise of Folly, Erasmus depicts the scholastics as starving theologians nibbling on dry beans.

    These principles have awakened the ire of the theology faculties at the great universities – Paris, Louvain, and Salamanca – which have pronounced their condemnation of Erasmus. … (Even the Great Reformer, Martin Luther), now has long since lost patience with Erasmus.”

    Today, only the labels has changed over time, I suggest. The rot, superstition, and self interest of those pulling the levers of power remain. This is how several of the last articles on education here on this web site have struck me. Here its not the messenger, I fault, but the tall tales he’s been fed.

    Their is always hope. Wolfe is a professor.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Bacon is a fine journalist. He writes limpid prose. He keeps his nose out of the story, allowing its players and events to tell their own tale their own way. Hence Bacon’s stories shine through, the good, bad, and ugly lucid and clear. Each story is a clear and naked gift to the reader, without hair, so to speak.

      But, given a persistent quirk in human nature, the clarity of Bacon’s work, what arouses the readers ire, can also direct that anger at Bacon. “First, Shoot the Messenger!” Here clarity creates illusion, triggering in some readers a first reaction that Bacon is making news and forcing its consequences on the reader, instead of telling them what’s happening in their world, warts and all, so arming them to understand and deal with it.

      Anyway, the last several articles on higher education on this website tell us a whole lot about what is going on, and not going on, including much hidden beneath the surface of the words. This is how words always work in our always imperfect world. Words are complicated. As complicated as those who deploy them. Few words hit the right target. More hit the wrong target. Most nowadays are decoys, or clutter.

      I suspect it is wise to report all of it. If it is “telling and speaking volumes.” But the keys are looking for holes in the story, what’s left unsaid, what words obscure the truth instead of reveal it, how most fool you, unless you are armed for bear. Bacon’s bottom line sometimes sifts through that, but as a accurate reporter he must tread warily, I would imagine.

      Next, I hope to try to apply some of this thinking to Taylor Reveley IV’s comments reported in Oct. 31st post titled, Time for Another Round of Higher-Ed Restructuring. He’s President of Longwood University.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      In a race against Bacon’s rolling down scroll of posts, one must move quick.

      It’s not fair to pick on Taylor Reveley IV’s. The problem is holistic. In the scheme of things, given a few of his ideas, he is likely more the solution than the problem.

      Same too for SCHEV. They’ve been given an impossible task. How do they fix the reality that most kids entering college have defective high school educations. Most are grievously impaired from the start, cannon fodder, really. And, worst of all, they don’t know it. How do you fix that, SCHEV? Who the hell knows. Maybe, that is why the politicians gave you the job.

      And how does SCHEV fix a bloated system of higher education all twisted out of shape and ill-formed to educate students effectively and efficiently even if most of its students had a good high school education, which most plainly lack.

      So lets focus on assertions, starting with Bacon’s gem lifted from above post:

      “As for those employees who “need to be competitively paid,” let me tell you how that works. Virginia colleges benchmark their faculty pay against that of institutions in other states and say, “We’ve got to raise pay to stay competitive.” This year the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia is recommending $84.3 million in extra state support (no guarantee it will get it) to keep faculty salaries competitive. Of course, higher-ed systems in other states are bench-marking as well, and they’re pushing for the same salary increases. And so the merry-go-round spins and spins.”

      So SCHEV is told it must shove out $84.3 million in General Fund money to promote faculty recruitment and retention. But what if very few of the faculty needed to keep Virginia “competitive” will ever teach students?

      What happens most all high paid faculty must be assured that they do NOT teach students, or a best teach very little?

      And what happens if hiring these “competitive salaried professors” triggers an obligation to spend large sums of other monies beyond their salaries, including rafts of salaries for researchers who also never teach, or if they do are second rate at best, because their real job is to support the competitive professor’s research or other pet projects having nothing to do with teaching.

      And how the the labs that all these non-teaching folks must work in, and all the equipment in those labs? Who pays for that? Taxpayers?

      So in fact most of the $84.3 Million in taxpayer money SCHEV must recommend does NOT GO FOR TEACHING. And to compound cost problems by creating collateral financial obligations of the school that must be paid by other taxpayer monies, while at the same time ALL OF THESE ENORMOUS COSTS drain the money available for teaching students.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well – it’s looks like the GOP have got this figured out and putting the kibosh on all those higher ed subsidies:

    ” Republican tax reform plan would tax large endowments and limit or kill key deductions, including one for student loan interest and another for graduate students.”

    The plan would impose a 1.4 percent excise tax on college endowments at private universities valued at $100,000 or more per full-time student. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities said Friday it estimated more than 150 institutions would be affected by the proposed tax based on 2014-15 endowment values.
    The bill would double the standard individual tax deduction, meaning much weaker incentives for charitable contributions to colleges, higher education groups say. Phasing out the estate tax, they say, would also have a negative impact on charitable contributions.
    The GOP plan would end student loan interest rate deductions and eliminate state and local income tax deductions, potentially encouraging spending cuts in states that are among the biggest supporters of public higher education.
    Republican lawmakers said the legislation would eliminate costly deductions that drive up taxes and said it would deliver “unprecedented simplicity” for tax filers.
    “Our legislation is focused entirely on growing our economy, bringing jobs back to our local communities, increasing paychecks for our workers and making sure Americans are able to keep more of the money they earn,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, the GOP chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
    Higher ed groups, though, say that provisions affecting the sector, taken together, would make a postsecondary education less attainable while putting colleges’ finances on shakier ground. Ted Mitchell, the president of the American Council on Education, noted that the committee’s own summary of the legislation showed it would increase the cost to students of attending college by $65 billion between 2018 and 2027.
    “Taken in its entirety, the House tax reform proposal released today would discourage participation in postsecondary education, make college more expensive for those who do enroll and undermine the financial stability of public and private, two-year and four-year colleges and universities,” Mitchell said in a statement.

    1. LarrytheG don’t you think that there is a big difference between tax policy that may redirect philanthropy to private higher education institutions, and tax dollars funding public institutions? I see the point of Bacon’s piece as noting that the easiest pathway for public higher ed is to put its hand out; there is some fairly low-hanging fruit that can help to reduce the expense of running an institution before the reflexive request for more funds. At least one Virginia public university (George Mason, I believe) recently found about $300,000 by making 2-sided printing its default. Pretty painless, and while not enough to move the tuition needle, setting a discipline standard is probably as important as the dollar amount saved by any single reform.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    @Lift – you must have missed this part: ” The plan would impose a 1.4 percent excise tax on college endowments at private universities valued at $100,000 or more per full-time student. ”

    and also … how does taking away the education tuition and loan deduction help non-public schools?

    You may or may not have seen my position on colleges – both public and private and that is that State support should go directly to the student in the form of a voucher from which they could then CHOOSE which college -public or private to attend – according to what is best for them.

    My position would not only foster real competition but would HELP those non-public and smaller institutions that did offer a quality product.

    I would put strings on it – each institution would have to participate in a College Scorecard disclosure of their academic and other metrics.

    I’m NOT in favor of throwing money at the public colleges in return for them supposedly meeting certain “requirements” that are so vague as to be no measureable.. the whole concept is a cynical joke.

    If Virginia REALLY wants to help it’s citizen kids be able to afford college – give them a voucher and make it good ONLY for Va Colleges (or other) that meet strict standards for costs AND academics and get out of the business of direct support to the colleges – except for academic capital facilities ONLY – no sports of any kind.. no stadiums, no fields, no ancillary buildings… zip.

    I think a good part of the Higher Ed Conundrum these days is akin to a govt subsidized scam… that is fleecing taxpayers, parents and kids.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    You know the FUNNY THING here in BR. Certain folks who shall remained unnamed spend innumerable opportunities to shout the praises of the free market from on high every chance they get – even for fundamental things like health care and K-12 public schools but when it comes to higher ed – they’re right in there hugging those “Mo money for higher Ed” tax and spenders!!!!

    I don’t think I’ve even ever heard them offer their manifesto for the free market for Higher Ed! It’s always MO money AND have the govt control the price and even more heavily regulate higher ed!

    inexplicable it is!


  9. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    For the past six years, I have been warning about the increasing damage that unrestrained and hyper-competitive academic research is inflicting on the quality of higher education in this country. The list and tenor of my complaints have grown longer and more strident over the years.

    Initially these complaints were jump-started by the May, 2011 memo from Teresa Sullivan, President of UVa., to UVa.’s Rector Helen Dragas. Therein President Sullivan proposed, in my view, to dramatically dilute and reduce the education and teaching of undergraduate students at UVa. in favor of radical increases in research, most particularly in STEM research.

    UVa.’s ambition, I felt, was unduly driven by several powerful and damaging trends ongoing in higher education. This included UVa.’s growing obsessive, compulsive race to drive itself relentlessly up US News & World Report type ratings charts whose standards and formulas demanded ever higher expenditures on non-teaching activities at UVa.

    It also included, in my view, a money chase by UVa. likely jump-started, in significant part, by the Obama administration’s 2011 announced ambition to dramatically increase federal funding of academic STEM research, most particularly in federally favored scientific and ideological initiatives, all disguised under a now failed ambition to make American students more competitive internationally in the STEM fields.

    Likely, too, this very same impulse also powered the rise of the “Strategic (Research) Investment Fund that abruptly appeared in public for the first time 5 years later to most everyone’s surprise (although hinted at as early as late 2013/14 for legal reasons). However covert, this Fund was deemed necessary since university research almost always costs far more money than it generates in profits. Hence, student tuition and teaching resources are far too often diverted by universities to their tenured professors’ research under today’s business model for the modern research driven university.

    And, not only are student monies too often diverted and student teaching opportunities too often aborted to fund professors research instead, but now students personal time and talents are too often captured as low priced wage slaves to service high paid professor’s research projects. To be blunt about all this, these growing habits are akin to sex trafficking, save only that it is the student’s time and intellect, and the system’s abuse of the student’s right to learn, that are being trafficked in by our system of higher education today;

    In any case:

    My concern that these trends would rob UVa. of its traditional strength as a nationally recognized institution that specialized in teaching undergraduate arts and sciences to highly motivated and talented students grew over time as the various pieces of the plan fell into place at UVa. from 2011 on. Indeed, watching these trends, I and many others, became alarmed as the evidence mounted of gross malfunction, and adverse consequences emerged, at our best colleges and universities all over the country.

    Also, over this period, I learned that these pernicious trends had already, over the past 6 decades, undermined much of higher education throughout the nation in a multitude of ways, infecting all tiers of higher learning, and all kinds of institutions purporting to offer students elite higher learning.

    For example, William Bennett, then Head of the National Council of the Arts and Humanities, predicted the onrushing demise of the Humanities at our elite national universities as early as the mid-1980s.

    These witnessed and tragic events included such things as:

    1/ the destruction of traditional courses in the liberal arts and humanities – such as history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and literature, particularly western literature and the classics – by their infection with post modernist theory and practices – like relativism, deconstruction, and critical culture theory – that the academy used starting in the early 1970s to vastly expand its own powers as ultimate investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury to render in their classrooms around the nation their judgements and punishments on all peoples, cultures, and learning, governments, and politics known to humankind under the sun. All, or most of this, was driven by intolerant ideologies inherited from the Post WW1 European intellectual stew that arrived in America after WWII to sicken America with the unfortunate but understandable nihilism of postwar Europe.

    Once here, this poison came to be often deployed in the disguise of clever and highly refined disruption theories such as political correctness, safe spaces, micro-aggression claims, and power, enslavement, dominance theories that are grounded in race and gender so as to set ever smaller groups of people in the community against one another. All of it was often driven a endlessly growing lists of grievances that were intended by a relatively small but clever group to gain the ultimate collapse whole societies as the alleged grievances multiplied and leapt from place to place, and from group to group.

    So, For example, much of this ideology has recently played out in Charlottesville, Va., one of many examples nationally, and here we are talking about events going back earlier than the Rolling Stone debacles.


    Along with way America’s academics have been about the task of destroying much of the substance of the very subjects and disciplines they had inherited from their past and were obligated to enrich and teach, so as to pass on this cultural birthright to their students what is those students rightful heritage and their cultures’ cannons of learning, from one generation to the next.

    Remarkably, these efforts to undermine our culture and society went largely unopposed for decades, the happenings at Cornell in April 1969 being an early example. These effort thus have, over time, hollowed out much of the center of our culture, and its confidence, and its coherence, and its ability to function. And it is now spreading chaos everywhere to the point of cultural collapse while it alienates much of the academy from much of our nation, its culture, and its society. And this is happening even though the academy has no choice now but to inhabit these traditional places of the American experience, given our recent events that are shaking up the Academies world, as yet it still despoils or youth, their culture, heritage, and future.

    2/ Nevertheless our higher institutions of learning have to a marked degree abandoned not only their roots but also their sponsors, their fund-payers, their students, and in some cases the very buildings and spaces they inhabit in their quest for greener fields worldwide. This they call GLOBALISM.

    Witness Teresa Sullivan’s grand pilgrimage to China, a quest to set up a branch, or perhaps second main campus for Mr. Jefferson’s University, snuggled close up to Forbidden City in Peking. But Globalism too is now collapsing around us, into ruins.

    And in the process of collapse, the ongoing and now rapid failure of higher education’s ill fated embrace of its brand of Globalism is leaving whole newly constructed university curriculum stranded on the shifting sands it was build on. This includes most notably the new curriculum for humanities at UVa. AND also that of much of Princeton’s Global program, for just only starters.

    Next, we will delve more deeply into the failing Academic Research implosions going on around the country that are not only corrupting many of the institutions that house them, but CORRUPTING SCIENCE ITSELF.

    First, for deep and detailed background on this growing problem, please read the Article SCIENCE IS BROKEN, published yesterday at

    Its authors are Marc A. Edwards, University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, and Siddhartha Roy, an environmental engineer and PhD candidate at Virginia Tech. This article is an abridged version of the journal paper “Academic Research in the 21th Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition, published in Environmental Engineering Science, earlier this year.

    With this reading behind us, it’s fair to ask why SCHEV should recommend funding hundreds of millions of dollars, into this system of higher education without also taking measures at the same time to fix the mounting problems.

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