Another Higher-Ed Apologist Calls for More State Funding

James Socas

by James A. Bacon

You’d think James Socas would know better. As an employee of the Blackstone Group, he invests in technology companies. He knows what it takes to run successful business enterprises. He has even served two terms on UVa’s alumni association board. But he’s willing to cut Virginia public universities plenty of slack when it comes to the way they run their enterprises.

In an op-ed he wrote for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Socas calls for greater state funding for Virginia’s public colleges and universities — with no strings attached and no calls for accountability. He should know better.

The op-ed makes some legitimate points. Higher-ed is an engine of economic growth. And the importance of higher education will only grow as the economy increasingly revolves around information technology, data science, machine learning and robotics. “Almost 50% of all employees,” he writes, “will need reskilling by 20205 as work becomes more knowledge-intensive and higher-order cognitive skills such as creativity, critical thinking and advanced problem-solving become more important.”

By creating or expanding programs that address skills gaps and target emerging opportunities, colleges and universities can ensure Virginians are positioned for success. Examples include George Mason University’s and James Madison University’s programs in cybersecurity; the University of Virginia’s (UVA) initiatives in data science; and Virginia Tech’s genomics sequencing center.

Colleges and universities also help to future-proof Virginia’s economy by spurring innovations that generate future wealth. For example, in 2019 alone UVA reported almost 130 new patents, 80 new licensing deals, and 10 new businesses formed through technology transfers and licensing of UVA intellectual property.

From these observations, however, Socas draws a series of totally unfounded conclusions regarding state funding. While he is quite correct to note that the cost of attending Virginia institutions has soared and is correct to note that state funding for higher ed has stagnated, he evinces no awareness that shortfalls in state funding account for only a fraction — perhaps a third — of the higher cost of attendance.

While it is true, as he observes, that many other states subsidize their higher ed sectors more than Virginia does, the fact that other states fail to hold their colleges and universities higher for runaway costs is no reason for Virginia to do the same.

His column is so full of unfounded and unexamined assumptions that it is impossible to list them all. But I’ll hit the highlights.

Socas repeats the old chestnut that Americans with advanced degrees earn more than high school grads. True. But he quotes average numbers. He ignores the fact that some degrees provide a much greater return in the job marketplace than others. We need more engineers, not more sociology majors. He ignores the fact that a significant percentage of college grads are over-educated, engaged in occupations that make no use of their college degrees.

Even pumping more money into STEM programs is a fool’s errand and does nothing to grow the technology economy if students don’t enroll. And students won’t enroll if they don’t acquire the requisite math and science skills in high school. I have seen no documentation that the supply of STEM education capacity in Virginia falls short of student demand. The problem is the shortage of students capable of enduring the rigors of STEM disciplines. Virginia needs to address the talent “pipeline” issue before mindlessly expanding engineering and science programs. Otherwise, those programs will end up competing with one another for a limited supply of qualified students.

Meanwhile, Socas asks nothing of Virginia’s colleges and universities, many of which are obsessed with raising their national rankings and making investments that enhance their prestige rather than making college more affordable. He does not call for them to sharpen their focus and curtail mission creep. He does not ask them to curtail bureaucratic bloat. He does not insist that they address the low productivity of faculty, especially of senior tenured faculty members who get paid the most. Perhaps most importantly, he ignores the need to systematically review and cull under-utilized programs so colleges can reallocate resources to fast-growth programs. 

Yes, building a tech-savvy workforce is critical to Virginia’s future. Yes, expanding programs to provide those skills is critical, too. But Socas doesn’t come close to making the case that indiscriminately increasing state funding for Virginia’s ossified system of higher education is the best way to accomplish that goal. For a glimpse of alternative ways of delivering technology skills, take a look at Amazon Web Service’s certification program described here. Socas knows something about technology companies. Perhaps he could do some creative thinking about how the unsubsidized AWS model might accomplish Virginia’s economic-development goals at far less expense.

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32 responses to “Another Higher-Ed Apologist Calls for More State Funding

  1. Lol Jim. That Op-Ed is Socas’ application for a spot on the the University of Virginia Board of Visitors. It establishes that he joins the other BoV members in requiring no accountability from the school’s administration. It ingratiates him with Jim Ryan who has the ear of the governor.

    However, Socas has a problem. He’s only donated $15,367 to Virginia politicians. Ever. Worse yet, his donating has slowed down in recent years. Yes, it’s 100% directed to Democrats including some of the least capable of our politicians (Kathleen Murphy for example). But he’s a Blackstone guy for goodness sake. That number needs to skyrocket if he wants a seat on the BoV.

    Blow the cobwebs off that checkbook Mr. Socas. You haven’t even gotten started!

    • “That Op-Ed is Socas’ application for a spot on the the University of Virginia Board of Visitors.”

      Haha! I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re absolutely right.

      • Remember too, the research and business venture angle as well. This opens up big business and investment opportunities. Hence, these aggressive research universities have got very little to do with educating kids, particularly undergraduates. But this sorts of research institutions we call universities have a hell of a lot to do with venture capital, private capital investment and capitalism generally, crony or otherwise.

  2. Trying to figure out if Jim B is actually subscribing to RTD!


  3. bottom line: Show me the metrics – as in: measures of performance and measures of evaluation.

  4. Blackstone owns a small menagerie of “edtech” providers — primarily India market test prep services. Opining that state funds should be used to build out STEM programs at Virginia’s Big Three is decent PR but even better business.

  5. Let’s see. Overarching headline. The man is saying the same thing BR has preached for years. Maybe the real issue is that he doesn’t want a bunch of social conservatives dictating manners and the system? If so, he’s my guy!

  6. It’s unrealistic for Conservatives or for that matter, anyone, to think that because the state provides some money for higher ed that they can then drive the process.

    The best the state can do is what the Feds do with Title 1 for K-12 and that is put strings and guidelines for how state money can be used or not.

    There is no way the state is going to direct higher ed top down.

    Even Conservatives should be opposed to that.

    • The state owns UVa whether UVa likes it or not. The state can do whatever it wants with regard to UVa whether UVa likes it or not. UVa is not much different than VDOT whether UVa likes it or not.

  7. I thought all these guys in private business were the ones that were so discerning, the ones who knew how to run a tight ship as opposed to folks in government, and the ones we are supposed to emulate.

    There is one passage in this post that compels me to mount one of my favorite soapboxes. That is the one that says that we do not need more sociology majors and that many college graduates are “over-educated, engaged in occupations that make no use of their college degrees.” College is not supposed to be a job-training exercise. Rather, one should be going to college to become an educated person. Educated in the broad sense. A college degree should do more than prepare one for an occupation.

    Lots of folks end up in occupations that are not directly related to their college degrees. Robert Gates was a history major at William and Mary. He went into the CIA, became CIA director, and later president of Texas A&M University. A good friend of mine graduated from William and Mary with a BA and MA in sociology. He recently retired after a successful career as a good budget analyst with the Dept. of Corrections and DPB. Another long-time budget analyst at DPB was a phys ed major in college.

    A large number of students going to medical school were majors in one of the humanities (e.g. history, English, et al) as undergraduates. In fact, the medical school acceptance rate of those with humanities degrees was higher than those with degrees in biological sciences. Those with a degree in one of the humanities had higher average MCAT scores than those in biological sciences.

    As Socas noted, and Jim seemed to approve, college graduates are going to need “higher-order cognitive skills such as creativity, critical thinking and advanced problem-solving.” It is hard to understand how someone coming out of college with those skills, which can be gained in fields other than STEM, could be “over-educated”.

    • Dick your assumption here is that kids graduating with B.A.’s in social sciences and humanities are, in actuality, learning higher-order cognitive skills. Some are. Many aren’t. Insofar as higher-ed institutions transform themselves into social-justice indoctrination mills, even fewer will gain any benefit from their four years in college.

    • “College is not supposed to be a job-training exercise.” This ended the day that the first college conferred an engineering degree.

      A mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer are given the task of finding how high a particular red rubber ball will bounce when dropped from a given height onto a given surface.

      The mathematician derives the elasticity of the ball from its chemical makeup, derives the equations to determine how high it will bounce and calculates it.

      The physicist takes the ball into the lab, measures its elasticity, and plugs the variables into a formula.

      The engineer looks it up in his red rubber ball book.

      BTW, Mathematics is an art.

      • I will have to pass this along to my grandson, the high school senior, who is convinced that math is the ultimate answer to all questions.

      • Depends upon the mathematician.

        • Well, been a long time since I started a paper with “Let B be a Banach space…” but even we poor ol’ backwoods mathematicians, who fell afoul of the computation forms, are still practiced in the black arts.

      • A physicist, and engineer and an economist are stranded on a desert island. They are close to starving when a crate of canned tuna washes up on shore. They are saved if they can figure out how to open the cans.

        The physicist calculates that the cans places in direct sunlight under 3 cm of water will heat to the point that the lid will loosen sufficiently to be pried off by hand.

        The engineer determines that a 1 kg coconut dropped from a 40m cliff directly on top of a can will make the lid pop off.

        The economist says, “Assume a can opener”

        • There is a mathematician in there too.

          The mathematician takes a stick and scratches in the sand,
          “Theorem: Unless I open the cans, I will die.”
          “Proof: By contradiction, assume the opposite…”
          His desiccated remains were found a year later

      • And the bureaucrat may admit that the most people can bounce the ball safetly in real life, but nonetheless you can’t get a permit to bounce until you have an engineer sign off on the elasticity calculations

    • If UVa were owned by the BoV it would be run much differently, trust me. Being a member of the BoV is a prestige position. The prestige of the BoV members is tied directly to the prestige of UVa. That prestige has nothing to do with affordability. Go to the Country Club of Virginia, look around and ask yourself if affordability seems to be on the agenda there.

      Fix UVa’s BoV and you’ll fix UVa.

  8. Dick,

    >>I thought all these guys in private business were the ones that were so discerning, the ones who knew how to run a tight ship as opposed to folks in government, and the ones we are supposed to emulate.>>

    You were confusing guys who are portfolio managers with guys who actually know how to run a real business. I can tell you with some assurance that portfolio managers only wish they could run a business. Well…not even that. They’re like columnists: they observe the scene, maybe take some notes, and then opine wisely about the scene. The only difference is portfolio managers presumably make decisions to buy or sell based on their observations of the scene. That, generally, is the limit of their ability to run a business.

  9. A few thoughts:

    This guy appears to be angling for the Board of Visitors. As DJ indicated, he’ll need to step up his donations.

    The benefits of a degree in say, computer engineering, accrue primarily to the person who earns that degree. Yes, there is economic advantage in having a skilled workforce, but the incentive to the individual is already there. The average graduate in computer engineering makes over 1.5X as much over the course of their career as a typical college graduate. At the 50th percentile, a computer engineer will make 1.9X as much as a sociology graduate over their career. (The sociology major will still make 57% more than someone with a high school degree only.)

    This raises two questions in my mind. First, why do we need to further subsidize something that already contains significant financial incentives and where the benefits largely go to the person who gets the degree? This is akin to subsidizing medical school tuition so the doctors can become even wealthier.

    My second question is perhaps counterintuitive given the first question. Why do Virginia colleges produce comparatively few STEM graduates if the earnings potential is so great? If you remove engineering, only half as many Virginia college graduates major in STM on a percentage basis as at some “cutting edge” universities. 16% of Virginia college graduate with majors in STM (for UVA, VT, W&M, GMU, JMU). The range is pretty narrow, from a high of 21% at W&M to 13% at JMU. “Cutting edge” schools (Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Berkeley), average 32% of graduates majoring in in STM. The lowest is 25% at Berkeley (still above the highest from Virginia) and the highest is 42% at Harvard. If you look at a specific area like computer science, the percentage comparison is worse, with the percentage at the cutting edge schools 2.2X the percentage at Virginia schools. I don’t have an answer to this one.

    Last thought. Sociology majors actually subsidize STEM majors. All the costs of education – faculty salaries, facilities, research overhead, etc. – are significantly lower for Sociology majors but they pay essentially the same tuition. You could extend this to many other majors.

  10. The economy is much, much more than STEM. It’s more than the hard sciences. It’s understanding how to implement the science. Engineers build cell towers but who puts together a company that provides cellular phones and service? Not a pure mathematician, not necessarily a “smart” person.

    Mr. Zuckerberg studied psycology and did not graduate.

  11. Nothing will change in state-supported universities and colleges until two things happen:
    1. Accountability for the use of state money to meet an auditable set of public objectives including cost control and freedom of expression metrics; and
    2. Elimination of federally-guaranteed student loans. The market would price loans based upon predicted ability to repay them over the life of the loan. What a concept.

  12. I agree with Dick in that the main purpose of a college education is to make students think, read, write, analyze, challenge, debate, support arguments, etc. Life’s problems rarely come in nice little boxes. Of course, there is content to mastered. A college graduate should not be results oriented but able to find a path to the result(s) suggested by the facts and rules. A college graduate should be able to work with others and solve problems, including knowing when to get help from someone who has the necessary expertise.

    Now, ask the question: Is this what we are getting from the nation’s universities and colleges?

  13. Learning probability and statistics were the most valuable academic lessons of my life. The second most valuable was calculus. The third was economics.

    When you come up in the public schools and go through high school sleeping on your divorced Dad’s coach, work during the semester and borrow money to go to school … you don’t study anthropology in the hope that Margaret Meade will be hiring once you graduate.

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