Questions Virginia Tech’s Board Should Be Asking

Thanks to a new state law, Virginia Tech has issued a notice of its intention to raise tuition for the next academic year. At its March 26 meeting, the board of visitors will consider changing undergraduate tuition & fees by between 2.8% and 4.9%.

The university justified cost increases as follows:

While Virginia Tech is often viewed as an excellent value and the university works to continue that value, the board will consider a combination of tuition and fee adjustments to address increasing costs of personnel, fringe benefit rate increases, escalation in fixed costs, investment in academic programs including faculty, and enhancing high demand student support services. Academic investments are designed to help the state meet the needs for graduates in key areas.

To further advance the affordability of a Virginia Tech education, the university is also working to expand private philanthropy and increase student financial aid programs. Student financial aid programs are critical to ensuring the affordability of a Virginia Tech education for all Virginians. …

The university will utilize mandatory non-E&G fee resources to address increasing demand for counseling and health services, transit service, career services, and advanced networking in addition to the other costs listed above.

The recommendations, notes the university statement, “continue a trend of slowing increases in undergraduate tuition and fees and expanded student financial aid, which will help expand access and affordability for Virginia residents at Virginia Tech.”

Inflation over the past 12 months has been 2.1%, so a portion of Tech’s expenses can be attributed to higher costs. However, the state is budgeting a meaningful increase in state support — $7.2 million in fiscal year 2019, or about 3.8%. (State funding numbers are based on former Governor Terry McAuliffe’s proposed budget, and don’t reflect any tweaking by the General Assembly.) In the past, public colleges and universities have blamed cutbacks in state funding for tuition increases.

Raising tuition and fees by the low end of the proposed range, 2.9%, would exceed inflation once again, and it would do so in the face of a fairly generous increase in state funding.

Virginia Tech’s board of trustees can do one of two things: (1) It can rubber stamp the administration’s proposals, adopting whatever recommendations are put in front of them, or (2) it can ask some tough questions.

If I were a board member, here are some questions I would ask:

Has the university increased the number of administrative staff employees over the past year? What’s the head count for staff? What is the costs of salary and benefits? What are the associated expenses, such as office space, travel and the like? How much has the university increased administrative spending over the past year?

What business process changes has the university implemented to reduce administrative spending? What savings have been achieved, and what is being done with the freed-up money? Private businesses are continually looking for ways to shave administrative overhead. How aggressive has Virginia Tech been?

What is the ratio of tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, instructors, and adjunct faculty? What is the average teaching burden of each category? How many classes do the most senior (and most highly paid) faculty members teach? Has faculty teaching productivity increased or decreased over the past year? How has the university deployed technology (computerized learning, distance learning) to bolster teaching productivity? Does the university track any faculty productivity measures?

To what degree is sponsored research subsidized by undergraduate and graduate student tuition? Break out expenditures for university research and explain exactly where the money comes from. If the administration says it’s impossible to determine if undergraduates are subsidizing research or not, ask why that’s so. Isn’t it a basic accounting function to answer basic questions like that?

How efficiently is the university utilizing its buildings and grounds? The budget envisions spending money on building renovations and new buildings. What is the space-to-student ratio at each building? Is the space-to-student ratio for the university increasing or decreasing? Has the university implemented state-of-the-art technology to track and optimize space utilization? Has the university built an unfunded maintenance backlog, or has it kept its buildings in good working order? What are the associated expenses relating to heating, cooling, lighting and other energy costs? How effectively has the university controlled those costs?

How do increases in room and board (which account for roughly half of the cost of attendance) compare to increases in the Consumer Price Index? Universities are engaged in an amenities arms race. Students from affluent students can pay the costs; students from poor families must borrow heavily. How do Virginia Tech room-and-board charges compare to other universities?

What has the university done, if anything, to rein in the cost of textbooks Textbooks typically cost students more than $1,000 a year, making them a significant contributor to the overall cost of attendance)?

Finally, a general question: What has the university done to make attendance more affordable — not just for lower-income students by increasing financial aid (in part by raising tuition higher for others) — but for all students?

Virginia Tech’s board is loaded with intelligent men and women who have achieved success in their professional careers. Serving on the Virginia Tech board is one of the most important civic contributions they’ll ever make to the Commonwealth. They owe it to the public to dig deep, demand answers to the kinds of questions they would ask in their own businesses, and keep the university’s top executives accountable.

Board members must always remember that university presidents, and provosts, and the rest of the academic establishment have their own imperatives — the first and foremost of which is increasing the prestige of the university — that may conflict with the interests of students, parents and taxpayers. If board members don’t hold university administrators accountable to the people paying the bills, then the only people who have the power to do so are the politicians. And if the politicians begin micro-managing higher ed, we could all rue the results.

For photos and bios of all 14 board members, click here.

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5 responses to “Questions Virginia Tech’s Board Should Be Asking”

  1. What is the cost of having a passport office in Squares Student Center? And why is it there? When the US Post Office is less than a mile from campus has one?

  2. EXCELLENT questions.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’d support some kind of comparative financial reports for higher ed in Virginia.. but the idea that anyone would get a level of detail sufficient to the questions that are asked is likely never going to go anywhere.

    And that’s because the folks who are asking for the info – really don’t want to know WHY the costs are what they are – instead they want a way to attack higher ed for not “controlling costs” or providing “affordable” tuition.

    Imagine doing something similar to that – to go after VDOT… or METRO ..or the DMV… or State Police, etc.. even the SCC or other state agencies… I just don’t see any of them serving up ammunition for those out to hammer them…

    I support some level of financial disclosure… on a comparative basis so higher ed costs can be apple-to-apple compared on some reasonable scale… but the minions looking for every nook and cranny that then can be “exposed” like some kind of a college version of a $600 toilet seat.. nope.. that’s just never going to happen.

    If higher ed costs are the issue – then none of them are going to go alone with them being individually selected to to be whipped and beaten..

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    These are good solid questions, Jim. Perhaps the overarching question is will the Board and Administrators at Virginia Tech answer these questions?

    As a matter of legal obligation, and morality, it would seem that the Board should answer these questions truthfully, completely, and transparently.

    After all, the members of the Board of Virginia Tech are not the people paying the bills that fund these costs on the promise that these funds will be used to pay for proper education of their children. Nor do the members of the Board own Virginia Tech. They cannot do anything their want with Virginia Tech’s assets. Its quite the reverse. The members of the Board hold their power over Virginia Tech and its assets, including student tuition, in trust for the benefit of those the university is chartered to serve, its students.

    Thus, board membership does not create an unfettered right to the exercise of power without accountability to the state, its taxpayers, and its students. It creates fiduciary obligations on the part of each member of the board to serve responsibly the university’s mission to educate its students. This raises an number of important questions?

    Is hiding from parents information necessary for them to know how their tuition money is being spent, particularly where their tuition payments do not go to pay the costs of their student’s education, but instead are spent on activities of professors that actively detract from their student’s education. How is hiding this facts of students and parents who pay the bill for their educations ever justified? Why would any Board member actively hide such a fact? Or refuse to answer such a question when asked. Is there any legitimate reason that justifies such covert activities?

    Given these fiduciary responsibilities imposed on Board members, why might we expect the massive resistance by Board members to answering these questions publicly, completely, and honestly, with full transparency? The public’s mistrust for public servants and a system that refuse to answer such questions grows not from circumstances unique to Virginia Tech. It is how many public universities are run today, a chronic legacy of deceit and secrecy born of opaque operations and hidden intentions among Board members, administrators, faculties, state politicians, and other stakeholders.

    Institutions and people without accountability can never be trusted. This is particularly true for people acting in secret who refuse to be held accountable.

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Notes to a tragedy –

    As well documented on this blog, today’s tragedy in higher education hangs between two central pillars of dysfunction – research and teaching, specifically:

    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 enormous increase in status drives professors and universities to do ever more research, irrespective of quality of 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 its tuition monies from paying teachers to paying research costs for ever more equipment, labs or researchers salaries. It’s a death spiral, forcing costs ever higher until the system collapses. For example, it forces ever more students to saddle themselves with ever more debt they need to try to get a degree whose value declines year by year.

    Why? Consider this contrast:

    Teaching deflates the status of professors. Teaching drives down their pay, reputation, security and tenure. And, as tenure and tenure track professors flee teaching for research, the 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 classrooms, entertainment venues spread 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.

    In these situations, the harm spreads and compounds as research and teaching war with one another. And, all involved suffer, save for the few elite who run and benefit from 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.

    Boards of Trustees who fail to act to fix these problems become complicit in these Ponzi schemes.

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