What’s Driving up the Cost of Attendance at Virginia Colleges?

Source: 2017 State of the Commonwealth Report

In the 2017 State of the Commonwealth Report, authors Robert M. McNabb and James V. Koch address the perennial question of why the price of higher education is increasing so much faster than everything else. While acknowledging that stagnant state financial support for the higher-ed system has played a contributing role, they insist that’s only part of the story.

As evidence, they proffer the graph seen above. The red line tracks the increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The green line shows the cost of room & board, which relies on charges to students, with no contribution from the state at all. That cost has risen consistently over twenty years at about twice the rate as the CPI. The orange line shows mandatory student fees, which also receives no state funding. That cost has risen about three times the increase in the CPI. Together, the two categories account for roughly half the expense of attending college.

Tuition, the blue dotted line, rises at a rate somewhat faster than room and board. That’s the only piece influenced by the level of state aid. What factors other than state support might influence the cost of tuition? McNabb and Koch offer several in this list of factors driving up the overall cost of attendance (including tuition, fees, room and board), which I replicate here almost verbatim:

  • Institutional concern with national rankings is epitomized by U.S. News & World-Report rankings. Fixation on rankings can lead to decisions divorced from the needs of taxpayers, students and families.
  • Amenities competition stimulates institutions to offer such things as recreational spas and climbing walls as well as upscale (and expensive) food services.
  • Institutions often construct new, spacious buildings even though it is costly to maintain this space, and utilization of existing space is surprisingly low. A 2014 study by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) disclosed that no residential four-year campus in the Commonwealth of Virginia utilized its classrooms more than 76 percent of reasonably available hours, and three campuses ranged below 60 percent usage. Parenthetically, it is not clear that adding significant new space is an intelligent public policy when internet-based instruction is expanding and head count enrollments are declining. Modernization and rehabilitation of existing space may make more sense and be less expensive.
  • Institutions increasingly assess mandatory fees to support items ranging from student centers to athletic teams. In 2016-17, eight Virginia four-year public institutions charged their full-time undergraduate students athletic fees of $1,538 or more. Consider Christopher Newport’s $1,886 annual fee. This corresponds to a charge of $188.60 per three-hour undergraduate course. Doubtless, CNU’s Captains are well regarded, but they also are expensive, and students bear a substantial portion of that cost.
  • The growth of institutional room and board charges at most Virginia institutions easily has exceeded the growth of the consumer price index. First-rate residence halls and excellent food are pleasing, but costly.
  • Administrative proliferation (as measured by the number of administrators per faculty member or student) exists on most campuses. Further, these administrators tend to be paid well.
  • Institutions have reduced the proportion of their budgets they spend on instruction.
  • Disproportionate growth in spending on employee fringe benefits (which sometimes have substituted for pay raises during difficult years) has pushed tuition and fees upward.
  • Federal government financial aid policies are based upon institutional costs. Hence, when institutional costs increase, the “feds” supply more money.
  • Institutions are reluctant to take advantage of new teaching and learning technologies, flipped classrooms and other innovations that have the potential to scale higher education.
  • Institutions are disinclined to share resources with other institutions, even in low-enrollment areas such as foreign languages and literatures.
  • Institutions are averse to pricing the resources they use internally, such as space, and this leads to suboptimal behavior and hoarding.
  • Institutional mission creep has propelled many institutions into offering new, low-enrollment programs, often at the graduates level.
  • Faculty productivity, as measured by faculty credit hours generated, has declined on most campuses.
  • Subsidies from undergraduate students often are required to support faculty research activity and this is true even in cases where the research also is supported by outside grants.

While the influence of these factors varies widely from institution to institution in Virginia, the authors acknowledge, “collectively, these are among the primary reasons why tuition and fee increases at Virginia’s public colleges and universities not only have vastly exceeded the growth in the consumer price index and median household income, but also why they have been substantially higher than the national average.”

Bacon’s bottom line: While I agree with the thrust of the McNabb-Koch analysis, I would be more circumspect in concluding that the factors listed above are “the primary reasons” for tuition and fee increases. In many cases, we just don’t have the data to say one way or the other. Despite that reservation, I think the list provides several fruitful lines of inquiry, and I suspect that the data would prove the authors correct in many instances.

Space utilization. To what extent, for example, is space underutilized on Virginia campuses? Every institution provides a different story. When Norfolk State University saw its enrollment plummet several years ago, for example, its space utilization went down as well. Utilization should improve as enrollment rebounds. Elsewhere, research universities cite the need for new buildings outfitted with specialized laboratories or other features to pursue advanced scientific and engineering disciplines, even if it means leaving former space underutilized. Thus, there may be legitimate explanations for temporarily low space utilization. However, I would agree that every college or university president should include in his or her dashboard of institutional performance a metric showing the utilization rate for individual buildings and campus-wide.

Low-enrollment programs. How many universities maintain low-enrollment programs? Which departments are fully enrolled? Which are under-enrolled? If I were a university board member, I would like to see a faculty-to-enrollee ratio for every department. If a department had persistently low enrollment, perhaps it should receive fewer resources — or perhaps it could compensate by pursuing more online enrollment. Do university presidents even collect that data?

Faculty productivity. My sense is that faculty productivity has declined over time, especially for tenure-track faculty members who are subject to the publish-or-perish dictum. What is the relative teaching load for full professors, associate professors, assistant professors, instructors, and graduate institutions? How many courses do they teach — and how many students are enrolled in those courses? This data should be readily available, and there is no excuse for institutions not compiling and publishing it.

McNabb and Koch are both industry insiders — Koch is former president of Old Dominion University. As long-time participants in the academic enterprise, they know how higher-ed works. They have tremendous credibility. Let’s hope that Virginia’s political class is paying attention.

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23 responses to “What’s Driving up the Cost of Attendance at Virginia Colleges?”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    With regard to these studies, there is a gross disconnect.

    What do these huge increases in cost have to do with teaching students? Do these huge increases in cost actively work against the effective teaching of students? Do these huge increases in costs hide the failure of many institutions to teach and otherwise educate and make employable students?

    Why can we not speak plainly and directly?

    Why do these great cost increases NOT result in great, demonstrable and parallel increase in the literacy, and analytical and problem solving ability, of students? Do we ever test for this? If not, why not?

    Reading these studies, it is as if there is something in the room, or in the air, something akin to a horrible elephant, that no one in the business of higher education wants to talk about, much less locate and measure and quantify, and then propose remedies for.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” In 2016-17, eight Virginia four-year public institutions charged their full-time undergraduate students athletic fees of $1,538 or more.”

    conventional wisdom has been that athletic programs “pay for themselves and then some”… or… is that paying for athletics that is separate from the big time sports? Either way – the question is – is that a legitimate cost to be allocated to all students? I can see fees for intramural.. but even then not on a subsidy basis but perhaps more of a fee basis…

    On space – I don’t think that’s as big a cost driver as salaries… which are likely 80% or more of the total costs – which probably does indicate a growth in personnel over that period of time. That metric would be interesting to see.

    also – no question, costs have gone up faster than CPI but not just in Virginia and that’s a problem when asking why Virginia’s costs have gone up – as if there is something unique to Virginia… it’s probably a wider scale issue and an equally valid question is why the “market” is not working ..i.e. why at least some competitors are not offering more competitive pricing ?

    1. No, such athletic fees do not recover costs properly assigned to all students. It is true that athletic programs which may not “pay for themselves” on paper usually do attract some alumni contributions that are not explicitly linked to athletics but surely influenced by the big-team razz-ma-tazz. That’s important to a university trying to wean itself off State support of its operating budget.
      But that is a poor excuse for making students who do not participate beyond intramural or “club” sports pay to subsidize the big intercollegiate sports machine.

  3. Only a half dozen or so universities across America do not spend a lot of student fee money paying for athletics. Most…over 80% of all institutions with a full range of athlete ic programs are largely subsidized by student fees. All you have to do is google it and the answers are there.
    And, Virginia is leaning on students more and more. First, the Commonwealth deregulated it public colleges and universities in exchange for cutting state support. It happened beginning around 2000 and to some degree it has happened all across the country…which was made possible by lots of federal loans money coming available.
    Across the country now most students are taught by adjunct or part time faculty while full time professors teach 6 to 9 hours per week. This has helped keep tenured faculty quiet as the costs of more administration, luxury hotels, grandiose football and basketball programs, recreational facilities etc have exploded.
    Lots states are facing the needed change as 24 now are on the road to free community colleges. And NC just lowered the tuition at Western Carolina U. to $500 per year. Tennessee, which does not have an income tax, just went to free community colleges and a promise scholarship of $5000+ that a student to use to go to any instate pubic or private college or university.
    Change is coming from many different directions and sooner or later and higher education is just one area. Virginia will have to wake up and recognize the challenges.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think the athletic fees are an example of a choice that institutions make rather than individual students or the State and I think it is wholly appropriate for the state taxpayers to NOT fund room and board and athletics and let someone other than taxpayers fund athletics and I’m concerned that athletic scholarships are essentially subsidized by athletic fees to all students. That does not seem right. Athletics are important but only as far as intramural not competitive sports with other institutions… with those costs picked up by all students. If you want to look at a place to reduce costs – this one of them IMHO.

    This goes back to the state funding universities instead of vouchers for individual students but the State would also have to exert pressure on the institutions to NOT force all students, including those with voucher to pay for things like athletics over and above intramural.

    A lot of this would change if the govt was not making loans so easily available for more than basic tuition and people had to pay with their own dime for these “extras”.

  5. From what little I know, I like the Tennessee approach, if mainly because it provides the equal opportunity for all to advance their own education that we consider so important, yet applies a lot of competitive pressure on schools that offer expensive amenities and sports that go far beyond what the coursework requires.

    And why shouldn’t the State pay for the academics, consistent with high school? It costs too much? That is what it takes to prepare a young citizen today to hold a decent job and contribute to society: how is it wise to withhold that investment in the future?

    But the full college “experience” is something else. Many of us enjoyed the residential life of a four-year, liberal arts college, back in the day, but today it seems we have expanded that concept to the point of indulgence, where any applicant with passable credentials and willing to pay or borrow the full price is a sought-after customer not a supplicant. From the point of view of our democracy, our need for educated citizenry, the benefits to all of a vibrant economy — the obligation of the State to provide educational opportunity to all is discharged by academics alone. We can discuss what type of academics — occupational training versus “liberal arts” — best serves that goal, but while college education continues toward a bachelors degree, why should the State pay for the higher-ed student to live anywhere but at home, let alone in resort-style accommodations with resort-style amenities?

    Consider, we’ve expanded health care coverage of dependent children to age 26, we won’t even let them drink legally until 21; why should the parents’ housing responsibility be deemed ended at age 18? From the point of view of the schools involved, it says a lot that those fancy accommodations and amenities and athletic amusements must be offered in order to attract sufficient qualified, profitable applicants. Let’s make it so that paying for all those perks is not the only way to get a college education, and the ready availability of a quality community college education serves as a brake on the runaway price of the alternative. If someone wants to pay their own money for their child’s 4-year residential experience, fine, but that should not automatically be required of everyone who seeks a bachelor’s degree.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I think your suggestion is a good start, Acbar.

      We have got to find ways to tie, and strongly focus, public monies directly into building better and more effective ways and means to assure high quality teaching of, and learning by, students within our colleges and universities. Right now, only a very small percentage of the costs charged and spent by colleges and universities goes into insuring the effective teaching of and learning by their students.

      Now, most all of the incentives that are driving costs spirals in higher education actively work against high quality faculty teaching and student learning within our institutions.

      Indeed, all levels of our systems of education in this country work against student learning. And most all the parts of our systems of education actively work against one another instead of building one upon the next for the cumulative benefit of all involved. Meanwhile, public costs continue to spiral out of control. We must use public funding now to break deeply entrenched bad habits now at work by all involved. This includes parents and students.

      1. Thanks, but restlessness with the status quo seems broadly shared, here. The Tennessee model is from jwgilley’s comment above. No question, we have to find a way out of the current mess where university costs are massively cross-subsidized by those traditional undergraduate students who pay full freight. No wonder the core academic function is buried in a bunch of high-mark-up fluff, marketed as “essential to the university experience,” so that little Johnny feels compelled to borrow and scrape together whatever it takes to buy the whole residential package.

  6. I did a little math. Taking seven schools only ( VT, UVA, VCU, ODU, GMU, JMU, and W&M), $138M per year is spent on athletics funded by student fees, and $461M is spent on R&D from institutional funds. That is $600M per year ($4,300 per undergraduate student) at just these schools. This expense largely falls on the backs of undergraduates and their parents and has very little to do with the core educational mission.

    Only the U.S. could (mostly) hold its own in the world economy while being so profligate in healthcare and education. No other country (save ones like Norway with a small population and North Sea oil) could hope to get away with this. We are fighting with one hand tied behind our back.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      When reading Izzo’s above comment for the first time night before last, Friday, I exclaimed: EUREKA!

      Here at last right in front of my nose is the truth unmasked – the earth shattering revelation that comes out from nowhere, a gut punch that exposes for all of us to plainly see that the emperor wears no clothes, but walks naked down the grand avenue, exposing to all the bad habits of everyone of us.

      And so, this Eureka moment must change everything going on today in Higher Education forever. For this is the Harvey Weinstein Moment today in Higher Education. There are no more excuses. The truth has dawned right before our noses. What’s been hovering there for decades, all of what we have refused to see or understand or deal with for decades.

      Thus, for example:

      1/ Many Kid’s can’t afford to attend college because Alumni demand that those kids who do attend, are forced against their will, or without their consent, to subsidize the scholarships and other costs of a relative few highly talented athletes, so the Alumni can watch them play on weekends, and private special interests can milk college athletic programs for $millions of dollars and a whole array of special favors dispensed though a black market.

      2/ Many Kid’s and their parents futures are hobbled by college loans they must incur to subsidize Alumni demands that those kids who do attend college are forced against their will, or without their consent, to subsidize the scholarships and other costs of a relative few highly talented athletes, so the Alumni can tailgate and watch their favorite college teams play on weekends. And special interests can milk college athletic programs for $millions, or a whole array of special favors dispensed through a kind of black market.

      3/ Many kids cannot afford to attend college, and many of those who do manage to attend college, find that their future, and their parents future, are hobbled by college loans that are used to finance hundreds of millions of dollars of faculty salaries and faculty research that has absolutely nothing to do with the education of these kids (and their parents) who are paying the bills. And that this faculty research is COVERTLY diverted (indeed stolen) from dwindling resources that colleges critically need to teach kids, and to otherwise assure that kids live in a college environment that promotes, and indeed demands, that kids learn and earn the education and college experience that they must have to thrive in the modern world, and the America must have if it is to survive in the modern world.

      4/ And that this faculty research and its costs that are stolen from taxpayers and students and their parents and that is diverted into research, and bloated administrative costs are STRANGLING AND SNUFFING OUT the careers, livelihoods, and futures of those diminishing numbers of professors and teachers in higher education who are gifted, willing, devoted to, and critically needed by all of our colleges and universities to educate students if these institutions are to fulfill their primary mission, and sacred obligation, to properly educate and mentor our children so that they can grow into adults who are empowered and able to cope with and succeed in the modern world, thus realize their futures and that of their families, and their societies.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    It’s the WAY we fund higher ed that leads to escalating costs and layering on additional fees and the Feds enable it with easily obtained loans.

    If we were selling houses or cars this way – the result would be the same.

    There simply is no true competitive market for much of traditional on-campus higher ed these days. It’s not just Virginia – it’s pretty much national with some notable exceptions like Tennessee and North Carolina.

    It has some unsavory aroma not unlike pay-day loans in that the folks selling the product KNOW the “market” and they know that people will sign-up for that product even though its taking many of them deep in debt …not for the core education – nope – the “amenities”.

    The only problem with the voucher idea is the same problem that we have with voucher for armed service folks who get taken for a ride by the for-profit commercial schools.. who will, without restrictions prey on the kids with state vouchers.. if those vouchers are not controlled so that folks throw that money away on even worse scams than the Higher Ed one…

    1. Yep, there seems to be wide agreement on the unnecessary amenities theme. With vouchers, I agree with you there need to be restrictions. But that’s tricky. As a former GI bill user myself, I remember many friends leaving the armed forces post-Vietnam who spent the money on private flight lessons not, e.g., law school. One former roommate wrote boasting how he’d got into a GI-bill-qualified deep sea fishing ‘course.’ The idea, of course, was that it was payback for military service and waste was an option.

      The potential not only for waste but for scams and kickbacks is high if the consumer, the 17 yr old kid, remains at the mercy of parents pushing one or another way to use an education voucher (especially if the parents resent the state telling them how to spend ‘their’ money). But vouchers are a simple and effective way to have everyone begin on an equal-opportunity footing; I’d rather start there and work to limit the waste than continue as we are.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m agog! I cannot imagine someone getting out of the armed services and getting a voucher for education they’ll need to transition to a civilian job – and squandering it on something. Can’t imagine the govt allowing such vouchers to be frittered away… seems like there needed to be an “approved” list of providers or something.

    I’d expect the same thing for College vouchers or for that matter K-12 vouchers. The providers will have to meet standards to be able to receive the vouchers.

    But I’m convinced that giving higher ed pots of money on the premise they will use it to meet some goals that are not even quantifiable or measureable.. is not any better… If you give the voucher to the kid and restrict where it can be spent and for what it actually can be spent on – the kid/parents will “shop”…. and a market with competition will likely emerge and rather than have the govt decide what the institutions should provide and charge – that ends up being choices they make – in response to competition.

    1. Agree with your last paragraph. Having the government decide has less upside and runs greater risks.

  9. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Vouchers for higher education would be a step forward to provide some level of market discipline on public colleges and universities and would also likely put cost control discipline on many private schools.

    What should the voucher cover? It could be based on a per-capita share of the State’s total expenditure for the Institution. There may need to be some adjustment for amounts intended for capital projects. The costs for building a new science building or debt service might still be a direct appropriation to the school. But operating costs for instruction could well be covered by a voucher. I’ve not yet figured out State-sponsored research.

    What I fear is basing State aid on the “costs” for education would be too loosy goosy at the beginning. There would be too much game-playing on what is necessary and what are the costs. That might be a second step down the road.

    I’m not sure in my mind how State funding for student financial aid (scholarships and grants) should be handled. They could be melded into the formula, but that could also steer financial support away from lower-wealth families.

    Student fees should not subsidize big-time athletics. Or at least not beyond the fair-market value of free or low-priced tickets to see games. I know a lot of students, especially boarding students who do regularly attend sporting events. It’s fair to collect something for this benefit. Ditto with performing arts. And it’s also reasonable to charge students something for access to recreational facilities and intermural sports. Sometimes, shooting hoops, lifting weights or swimming a few laps is what is needed to reduce the stress of academics.

    Ticket sales, broadcasting rights and donor gifts should pay the bulk of the costs for bigtime, intercollegiate sports, not ordinary students.

  10. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    U.S. News & World Report’s dominance in rating colleges is obscene. It is about the only enterprise the news outlet has left. This is part of the obsession with American and non-American parents to push their kids to get into “the best” schools. A lot of it comes from China and South Korea. There are for-profit companies in this country that recruit Chinese kids to study at American high school. Supposedly it gives them a leg up. At a big price. This wasn’ t the case a half a century ago.
    The flip side is that some colleges target only but so many students from Asia or with an Asian background just as blacks, Jews and Catholics were restricted some decades ago.
    It is important to understand these pressures. It is not just “liberal” professors and administrators. It is global pressure that is out of control.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Peter –

      I agree with you that U.S News & World Report, its rating systems, and others like it, have reeked enormous damage on America’s system of higher education. These ratings systems prey upon the best and worst instincts of parents, who only want “the best” for their kids, but are grossly mislead by these rating systems as to what the Best in Higher Education really is, and how to find the best, and how to best take advantage of the best.

      These U.S News & World Report rating systems also reek havoc and otherwise damage most everything and everybody they touch in higher education, whether they be students, parents, taxpayers, college Boards of Trustees, administrators of all kinds, faculty of all kinds, and Alumni.

      So, for example, these U.S News rating systems prey upon the worst and best instincts of colleges and universities too, and ignite vicious cycles of bad habits by all concerned, including surging costs, mission creep, and lost of focus and lost of mission, that harms and corrupts all involved. And these ratings drive costs sky high while they drive down the quality of education that students receive at the vast majority of “selective” American institutions irrespective of their rank.

      As to how this works, and how it has happened over time, it is important to remember that US News & World Report’s annual rankings first appeared in 1983. By then the quality of undergraduate education in America was already in a free fall, and had been since the late 1960’s. The authority and control of Administrators to maintain standards of teaching and learning in their institutions had been in collapse since the mid to late 1960s. This collapse was concurrent with the rise of the radical left among the faculty during this time of great social and cultural upheaval in America generally, and on campuses in particular. (Recall 1968 Democratic convention, the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), and Jesuit Berrigan Bros, for a few of many examples)

      Much of this vast cultural shift within US higher education came to stay, ferment, and grow into a force of dramatic impact. This fueled the rise of post modernism – relativism, deconstruction, and critical cultural studies – that was well on its way in the 1980s to destroying traditional teaching of undergraduate Liberal Arts and Sciences on America’s campuses. The Western Canon, the best of that body of scholarship, writings, and traditions that had been built over the space of 2000 years was being trashed and discarded and replaced by an every growing hodgepodge of courses called “NEW KNOWLEDGE. This stuff was and is a complete impostor, little more than angry imaginings of maladjusted college professors using their axes to grind up the Canons of Civilizations on the altar of suddenly discovered grievances and injustices by abusive and oppressive types of people and cultures who over the past 2000 years of recorded history have inflicted a litany of horrors on ever expanding types and kinds of other oppressed peoples of other races, genders, ethic groups, cultures, classes, and others however slightly different. However valid originally, this has now reached the point of parody, if not now the level of the absurd, and obviously so.

      But this rampant claptrap fueled an explosion of research and research papers on the undergraduate level by the late 1970s, tripling and quadrupling the time faculty devoted to research and the spawning of New Knowledge courses that poisoned undergraduate level education at many American Universities. Indeed, as this research become ascendant and then dominant, the teaching of students, and the demands placed on student learning, in colleges and universities plummeted. Student skills in reading, and writing, and critical analysis and problem solving, began a long and decline that continues to this day, as did the decline in homework study and testing in the substance of whatever was taught in the classroom, not to mention the abrupt decline in the quality and substance of the courses taught in the classroom.

      Unfortunately, the US News and World Report Rating System put these bad habits on steroids beginning in the 1980s. The enormous power these magazine rating systems came to wield over the buying habits of students and parents (where students applied, and how they formulated their first, second, third, fourth, and back up choices) put the students and their desires in the drivers seat, in so far as concerned school administrators and faculty. It also turned the students into commodities whose every whim, and desire had to be catered to by the colleges and universities, to attract students to the school and keep them happy once there. For now, their student’s Advance Placement and SAT scores, and their application and acceptance and retaining rate, were critically important to an institutions national, regional, and local rating, which in turn could easily make or break a institutions success or failure in the market place. This launched a very costly building and amenities war. And, this destroyed the institutions and faculty’s ability of enforce educational and learning standards on students.

      Indeed now a professors main job vis a vis students went from teaching and challenging students to learn to entertaining students and keeping them happy, and this came to mean affording their students the most pain free ways of graduating with the least amount of pain, work, failure or effort. So, yet again, reading and writing, and serious testing and grades, went out the window in most courses but hard sciences, while entertainment and junk courses exploded in popularly throughout most college curriculum.

      In essence, what happened was that a peace treaty was signed between the school and the students so that each got what they wanted. The student got graduated and good grades with the least amount of work and the most amount of fun and recreation, while the faculty got ever more time away from teaching and grading students, and ever more time for faculty research and development of professor’s businesses, chasing grants, getting outside clients, and burnishing their professional chops while turning over ever more teaching, grading, and advising to adjunct non tenured professors, graduate students, and post graduate students, the vast majority of which are low salaried contract employee with little long future or security at the school.

      This gig, its big bundle of bad habits, went through the roof after the year 2000. This was fueled by the explosion of federal student loans and grants, and the vast increases in the federal funding of STEM research, and other projects that the federal government had an interest in, like defense, global warming, health care, alleged sexual abuse on campus, you name it.

      This only strengthened the hand of the Magazine rating power game that now forces Colleges and Universities to play its games, and to meet its demands, as well as the demands of the federal government, the students, their parents, the Alumni, and state governments, and big private interest investors and funders. Yet again this has ignited the highly expensive arms races among ALL THE SELECTIVE COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES as they must built ever more expensive “five Star” facilities and student bodies to complete with one another, most particularly their peers, and impress their many masters, whether their race be for the TOP TEN in the Nation, or among those schools ranking between 140 and 160 in the nation.

      Meanwhile, students, now highly sought after commodities are wined, dined, and pampered to, not challenged, or made to work hard to earn good grades and so prove their competence, but it is their fate now to be entertained and catered to. Hence, today far too many students of all abilities become whiners and complainers, and fragile and fearful, or grossly incompetent but dominating until they fall apart when challenged. See for example the U Tubes screaming girl at Yale. And, it is for sure that far too many students today get no where near the education that they deserve and pay for.

      But at long last there is reason for hope. Signs that things are beginning to change. And that they can change as new leaders take charge and old leaders who have been fighting and holding on now re emerge after a long winter in the dark, into a changing social and political climate. Change is in the air.

      1. “[USN&WR] turned the students into commodities whose every whim, and desire had to be catered to by the colleges and universities, to attract students to the school and keep them happy once there. . . . This launched a very costly building and amenities war. And, this destroyed the institutions and faculty’s ability of enforce educational and learning standards on students.”

        Well said! Let’s not assign all the blame to USN&WR but also to the prevailing social model that “adult” life supposedly begins at 18 and kids close to that age should get out of their parent’s home and transition through that fun-and-games-resort called “Four-year-residential-college” — with gourmet food and athletic facilities and sex and pot (but sans alcohol of course because they are incapable of handling the traditional mind-altering chemical). What youngster wouldn’t want to keep up with his peers and live in such a paradise even if his parents could or would not afford it? The debt — well isn’t everyone borrowing whatever it takes to go get the full experience? Don’t all the admissions advisers say college is worth it in the long run?

        Indeed, sending one’s kids away to college is traumatic; parents don’t call it the ’empty nest’ for nothing. Indeed, their kids come back changed — hopefully for the better. Indeed, some parents don’t know how to let go, or never do; but most manage to cut the apron strings, and most of their children manage to achieve a degree of maturity and self-reliance.

        Would those kids become just as mature and self-reliant if they lived at home and went to community college and earned the same academic degree? Perhaps. Both provide intellectual growth and civic preparedness and employability advantages. We need not parse in detail the relative social merits of the four-year-residential experience at a liberal arts college versus living at home over the same time-frame. But should kids go into crushing personal debt to buy the former, rather than the latter, experience? That, I will definitely argue against.

      2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Yesterday, the 27th, one day after I wrote my Nov, 26th comment above, the following was published in the Federalist found at:


        This Federalist article is well worth reading, too.

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    Really don’t have a problem with US&WR “ratings” any more than I do with Consumers Reports rating cars or fridges… or other publications ratings laptops or Nursing Homes.

    It’s MORE information than you would have had otherwise. It may or may not be “enough” or the right kind …. but to blame the publishing of the info for the subsequent motivations of people just strikes me as bass ackwards.

    People do make decisions. They buy cars they cannot afford or later regret but to blame Consumers Reports for “rating” the cars as the reason why a bad decision was made… well geeze….

    If you buy a $50,000 car because you liked it’s “rating” and your spouse or kids though it was “cool”.. or would be good in the snow… so be it … but for Gawd Sake – OWN your decision and don’t be blaming it on publications like Motor Trend or Consumers Reports… or who you bought it from!

    If YOU and/or your kid decide to “go for the JUICE” college-wise – and money-wise then so be it.. but LORD don’t be blaming YOUR decision on others or even worse censoring the magazine raters or have the Govt “control” costs.

    The whole idea of someone expecting the Govt to “control” college costs is beyond the pale… what other costs is the Govt good at controlling folks?

    Listen – most all of us do have brains.. and most of us know enough not to walk in traffic or other harmful activities. Some of us actually pride ourselves in figuring out the “best” microwave oven to buy of the most reliable car to buy … or how to save money by shopping around for “deals” but for some reason, when it comes to College – too many folks just fold their tents and CHOOSE to bleed financially out the wazoo – AND then BLAME it on magazines… and/or … Government .. of all things…

    GOOD LORD! Might as well say “the devil made me do it”!

  12. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: “How to do vouchers”.

    First – it can only be spent on approved providers – and yes.. that’s something the govt would have to do.. and actually has had a good run at it with the Obama-era College Scorecard… https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/

    Second – what should it “cover”? ONLY TUITION and ONLY the mandatory fees that provide actual services directly to the student – like healthcare , etc, and books and computers. (Pretty much what is allowed for tax deductions). Discussions here do often ignore the fact that out-of-pocket expenses for tuition, books, and the like but not room&board do qualify for tax credits – some to reduce taxable income and others straight up refundable credits. Loans are ALSO deductible.. so it’s not like people are bearing these costs “bare”. There is substantial tax “help”…

    NONE, ZIPPO, NADA for athletics… any athletics participated in – is fee based to the student.

    Third – the vouchers should be means-tested – according to the family’s finances or if the student is on their own – then theirs.

    Anything along the lines of food or housing should be handled by the existing entitlement programs…

    1. Larry,

      I think you may be on the right path but I would go one step further. Fees are typically itemized so you can make some sort of decision on whether the fee supports the core academic mission or not (e.g. athletics fees do not contribute to core academic mission). I know you may disagree with this, but the problem with tuition is it can go for things beyond instruction like administration, sabbaticals, research, etc. I think tuition needs evaluation.

      I think federal guaranteed loan policy could already exclude these things. As it is, students are going into higher levels of debt to pay for things not related to the core educational mission and this is driving up defaults.

  13. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Thanks Reed, for your analysis.

    This is bit of a reach but you note that the ratings craze started in the 1980s. Those were the glory years for magazines and ratings. I started working for McGraw-Hill in 1983 and landed at BusinessWeek, which was a monstrous cash cow for the firm until the early 2000s when the Internet came in.

    A former publisher of Forbes once told me that the reason magazines like his did well in the 1980s was demographics. A big slug of baby boomers was ready to move higher in business. They wanted tons of info, including ratings, to help them. Perhaps the college ratings system was pat of this.

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