Add Affordability to List of Higher-Ed Priorities

Higher-ed governance is a Rubik’s Cube of complexity.

by James A. Bacon

Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin has an opportunity to restore Virginia’s public universities as beacons of free speech, free inquiry and intellectual diversity by making strategic appointments to Boards of Visitors over the next four years. As he refines his vision for higher education, he should also prioritize making Virginia colleges and universities more affordable and accessible — through productivity and cost-cutting, not bigger state subsidies.

Both of these goals — freedom/intellectual diversity and affordability — are inter-related. A major reason higher-ed institutions have become so expensive is the profusion of costly bureaucracy over the years. Increasingly, Virginia’s four-year higher-ed institutions are run by unaccountable, self-perpetuating oligarchies that have allowed administrative positions to proliferate. As it happens, many of those positions are designed to advance a social-justice agenda that enforces stifling ideological conformity.

Traditionally, the political class has addressed the affordability issue by increasing financial aid: making it easier for students and parents to borrow and providing targeted financial aid for lower-income students — in other words, by dumping more money into the system. Universities have never been forced to engage in spending discipline, and as a result the cost of attendance — not just tuition but fees, room and board — has escalated far faster than the cost of living. The massive accumulation of student debt has created a national social crisis, and college remains as unaffordable as ever.
Attacking the bureaucratization of higher-ed would be good policy and good politics. In the 2020-21 academic year, 37,000 new in-state undergraduate students enrolled in public four-year institutions in Virginia. That’s just in one year! That’s a vast constituency.

As exercised as conservatives (like me) get about the creeping ideological conformity and intolerance on college campuses, every parent feels the sticker shock of the cost of attendance. Frustration with runaway college costs could be a huge source of voter motivation, if only someone could figure out how to tap it.

Youngkin could be that person.

Legislative efforts in Virginia to control higher-ed spending have been futile. If lawmakers tried capping tuition, colleges would reclassify many expenses as “student fees” — and raise the fees. If lawmakers capped fees, colleges would recruit more out-of-state students who pay higher tuition. If lawmakers capped out-of-state enrollment, colleges would find other ways to circumvent the limits. Colleges don’t need ham-handed, one-size-fits-all legislative controls. They need activist Boards of Visitors willing to do the hard work of closely examining the cost structures of their institutions.

One area deserving special attention is the growth of ubiquitous Diversity, Equity & Inclusion bureaucracies. Boards of Visitors should demand to know how much these bureaucracies cost, what they do, and how effective they are. Has any university adopted measurable goals of success? Is there a metric, if achieved, that would allow one to say, “mission accomplished”? Or are DE&I bureaucracies always in search of ever-more-rarefied instances of perceived racism in order to justify their existence? Put another way: Do DE&I bureaucracies improve race relations on college campuses, or do they act as constant irritants that make race relations worse — and how do we know?

Many other aspects of higher education warrant scrutiny. Do Virginia colleges and universities have an “edifice complex” — a misplaced penchant for overbuilding? Do they engage in mission creep, allocating resources to activities peripheral to the mission of educating students? Are highly-paid senior faculty indulged with light teaching loads so they can pursue research and writing? How are discretionary resources from endowments and fund-raising campaigns deployed — to make college more affordable, or to enhance prestige, climb the national rankings, and buff the credentials of senior leadership? Then there is the most important question of all: are students learning? What is an institution’s educational value-added? How do we even know?

Universities are highly complex organizations that operate by a unique set of rules. Here’s one more piece of unsolicited advice for Mr. Youngkin. If he appoints a new crop of BoV members with the goal of making Virginia’s public higher-ed institutions more accountable, he needs them to hit the ground running, not spend a year or two climbing the learning curve before they become effective. He should send them to BoV boot camp.

As it happens, there is an organization that provides training for new BoV members — Partners 4 Affordable Excellence @ Edu. The nonprofit was founded by former University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas, and the training sessions are run by former Old Dominion University President James V. Koch. Koch has devoted his post-administrative career to studying the dynamics of college cost inflation and higher-ed governance. (Full disclosure: Partners 4 Affordable Excellence once sponsored this blog.)

Such a training session would start with the basics — what are the responsibilities of BoV members, and whose interests do they represent? (Quick answer: they represent the citizens of Virginia.)  How are universities structured? What power do BoV members have? What kinds of questions should BoV members be asking? What sources of data can they access independent of what university presidents spoon feed them? 

No Virginia governor has undertaken the challenge of reforming Virginia’s system of higher education. Youngkin could be the first, and he could set an example for the nation.

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9 responses to “Add Affordability to List of Higher-Ed Priorities”

  1. James Kiser Avatar
    James Kiser

    Democrats always like rent control , they like to control everything so lets put caps on college costs and if college teacher and admin don’t like it well tough.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “We said very early on that we believe strongly that our students and their families deserve a high-value education that they can afford and that we will fit our spending to their budgets — not the other way around. Purdue is a national leader in the value of its degrees, and we intend to increase that value further,” … Mitch Daniels, former Republican governor of Indiana and now head of Perdue University.

      Some politicians and former politicians get it. Unfortunately, none of the politicians in Virginia seem to give a rat’s ass about college affordability.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Daniels and Purdue seem to be the real deal. I doubt that Purdue has all the goodies and amenities of their higher dollar counterparts. Did Purdue get “mandated” by the state to do what it’s doing? Is it the only one or are other state-supported colleges in that state having to also offer affordable tuition?

        In other words, is Purdue the work of the State, legislature, governor or is it just the work of Daniels?

      2. Purdue seems to back that up. too, although their costs are certainly not “bargain-basement”

        The total for in-state undergraduate tuition, fees and on-campus housing is a little under $22,000. Out of state students will pay Of course out-of-state students must pay about $41,000.

        Tuition, fees, books and on-campus housing will cost an in-state Virginia Tech undergraduate a little more than $24,000. Out-of-state at Tech runs about $42,700.

        UVA comes in at just over $31,000 in-state and $63,500 for out-of-state.

        All costs are without financial aid or scholarships.

        Source: 2021 information from

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    might be reinventing the wheel here:

    ” Boards of Visitors
    SCHEV is required by the Code of Virginia to conduct educational programs for all recently-appointed members of the governing boards of Virginia’s state-supported colleges and universities. The Code of Virginia mandates that all new appointees attend a SCHEV orientation session within their first two years of service. To this end, the agency hosts an event annually for new members of the 14 Boards of Visitors and the State Board for Community Colleges to help them better understand, exercise, and fulfill their important governing responsibilities.”

    I thought Haner worked there and knew this also… no?

    1. SCHEV’s orientation session does cover a lot of topics. There’s a lot about DE&I but nothing about free expression, free inquiry, growing intellectual conformity, runaway spending, or the matters that need reforming.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I think SCHEV’s mission is state code, no?

  3. Virginia Project Avatar
    Virginia Project

    Step 1: cut all funding for “queer criminology” and anything that resembles it

    there are tons of really super easy cuts like this

  4. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I agree with most of what you say. Training or some sort of intense orientation for new members of boards of visitors prior to their assuming their places on the boards would be an excellent move. I don’t know anything about the Dragas/Koch operation, but it would as good a place as any to start.

    College costs have certainly become excessive. Administrative bloat has contributed to it. So has the desire of higher ed institutions to have fancy new dorms, lavish food courts, recreation centers that rival private clubs, etc., all to appeal to what they perceive to be the desires of today’s students. Another factor, which you fail to mention (and I am not surprised at the omission) is the declining level of state general fund support. As he state contribution as a share of higher ed costs declined, the institutions raised tuition and fees in response.

    I am afraid that you are expecting too much of Mr. Youngkin. He does not strike me as the type who would make it a mission to reform higher ed. That is a long-term task and he has only four years, the first year of which will be learning about state government in general. If I am wrong, that would be good news.

    I think the answer, if there is one, lies with the General Assembly. The higher ed institutions pretty much ignore the Governor, but they pay attention to the legislature. Terry Austin was the only Republican member of the House Appropriations Higher Ed subcommittee. Presumably, he will chair that subcommittee in the next General Assembly. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) is the chair of the Senate Finance Committee’s Higher Ed subcommittee.

    Those are key positions that could exercise a lot of influence in any attempt to reform higher ed. I don’t know much about Austin, but I have seen nothing that would make me think he would be a reformer. Mamie Locke has been around a long time, but her interests seem to be in areas other than higher ed. She is part of higher ed as a professor at Hampton University. That would certainly provide her with insights to, and understanding of higher ed. However, she has done nothing to indicate that she would be a boat-rocker in this area.

    The prospects for reforming higher ed and making it more fiscally accountable seem dismal, indeed.

    Regarding one of your other favorite topics: DE&I. I agree with the major premise and aims of DE&I. But, I also agree with you ab.out the wastefulness of creating a DE&I bureaucracy. I view their creation as a way for higher ed institutions to show that they “get it”. Most of what those bureaucrats do will consist of reports that justify their positions. Regardless of that, the costs of those offices are a very minor percentage of the overall administrative costs. Eliminating them would probably would not make a difference in tuition costs.

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