Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

On College Affordability, History Need Not Repeat

by James Toscano

In his October 14 opinion column in The Virginian-Pilot, Gordon Morse decried a speech by Virginia Speaker of the House Kirk Cox that underscores the obvious connection between Virginia’s economic vitality and the roles our public colleges and universities should be playing.

But rather than focus on the future, Morse decided we needed a history lesson, replete with programmatic litanies of “who did what to whom” and “we got here because of political choices” made almost 30 years ago.

Naturally, the irony is inescapable: then, Morse was a speechwriter for one of Virginia’s governors and undoubtedly had every opportunity to weigh in on “political choices” that, today, he characterizes as wrongheaded.

What makes even less sense are criticisms leveled at the Speaker for suggesting that it’s time to consider new ways of writing academic success stories focused on affordability, and rewarding Virginia’s schools who lead the way in public and measurable terms.

To some, it may seem heretical to suggest change. . . to challenge old ways of thinking and doing.  But we’re not going to get out of this higher education mess without change, and the Speaker and others from both sides of the political aisle deserve credit for leading the way.

On the other hand, there will always be those who would rather dwell in the past and use history as a shield against change.  As Morse put it, “If only we could just get straight on the history — yes, it matters – of how we got to this point.”

Well, sure it does.  But only to a point.

Instead, what matters more is how our public colleges and universities will respond to these historic realities:

  1. Too many students are going into debt to get a college degree, and it’s not because they’re drinking too many lattes.
  2. College debt has become the albatross that’s dragging down our economy and draining Virginia’s talent pool.
  3. More and more, a tidal wave of mounting student debt is pushing graduates, parents and grandparents under water, and into bankruptcy.
  4. Left with no affordable – much less realistic – option, Virginia’s next generation of college graduates won’t be.  And then what?

Say what anyone might, but those leading our public colleges and universities – not to mention those governing them – have a primary obligation to educate Virginians first.

It’s what Thomas Jefferson – who wanted to be remembered as the founder of the University of Virginia instead of our third president – always wanted, but what far too many seem to have forgotten.

So if it means meeting a first principles obligation to follow the truth even if it means change, then so be it.

If it means one size will never fit all, and that it will take flexibility and new ways of thinking that don’t quite conform to the past, then so be it.

And if it means accepting that history isn’t a straight line, but something that can actually bend to meet today’s needs, then so be it.

Speaker Cox is a retired high school government teacher who knows these things.

The pity is that others seem to have forgotten them.

James Toscano is president of the Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust.

Virginia Tech Gets This One Right

As the 150th anniversary of Virginia Tech’s founding approaches, university officials are thinking about how to tell the story of the institution’s past. At the University of Virginia and Washington & Lee University, reflections upon the institutions’ histories have been the occasion for self-flagellation over the sins of ancestors who participated in slavery and segregation. While it is proper to acknowledge ugly aspects of the past, nothing useful comes from wallowing in self-abasement.

Judging from recommendations submitted by a 24-person history council described in today’s Roanoke Times, Tech will likely strike the right balance between candor about the past and wallowing in it.

In a nod to contemporary PC sensitivities, the council proposed erecting a work of outdoor art to honor the Native Americans who lived in the area before white settlers arrived. It also proposed an expansion of VT Stories, an existing oral history project, which collects stories from a broad cross-section of the Virginia Tech community.

Last year President Timothy Sands initiated an inquiry into the legacy of Confederates at Virginia Tech. The university has several buildings — McBryde, Vawter and Lane halls — named for men who fought for the South. John McLaren McBryde, sometimes called the “father of VPI,” enlisted in 1861 before the attack on Fort Sumter. Charles Erastus Vawter Sr. fought in the Stonewall Brigade. James Henry Lane was a brigadier general who commanded the 28th North Carolina infantry.

The council decided not to recommend renaming any buildings. Said historian Peter Wallenstein: “Worrying about what someone did as a 20-something member of the Confederate military really was not on the forefront of our minds.”

Council Chairman Bob Leonard, a performing arts professor, hit a pitch-perfect note: “The council strongly believes that previously silent stories must be voiced, such as those of under-represented and historically marginalized groups, and that complicated histories not be hidden, but instead, be related in full context.”

Add to the history. Contextualize the history. Don’t obliterate the history.

Rural Virginia Does Not Need A Marshall Plan

Gov. Gerald L. Baliles

In devastated post-war Europe, millions of people were qualified and eager for jobs or desperate for capital to get their farms planted and harvested.  In demographically-diminishing rural Virginia, farms are mechanized. If you build a huge factory today qualified workers may not come in sufficient numbers.

A scaled-down 21st Century Marshall Plan is a nice rhetorical image, and former Governor Gerald Baliles captured the headlines by using it in a recent speech, but the analogy simply doesn’t fit.  Rural Virginia’s problems cannot be fixed with an infusion of cash.

When Baliles has something serious to say, serious Virginians should read or listen.  After successful turns as legislator, attorney general and governor (pestered but never tripped by the loyal opposition) he returned to private life and never again appeared on the ballot.  That alone sets him apart from today’s career politicians.  He has had a long-standing focus on his native rural Virginia, but his legal career was Main Street Richmond.

“If you were to take the “rural horseshoe” and hold it up against the Golden Crescent, the contrasts are stunning. Two Virginias!  Moreover, according to our community college system officials, if the “rural horseshoe” region were considered a separate state, it would be tied for dead last with Mississippi and West Virginia for educational attainment levels—dead last for citizens with high school diplomas; dead last for citizens with college degrees. Think about that.”

His emphasis on education goes back to his own life experience and that of so many others, my mother’s Southwest Virginia family included.  His critique of Virginia’s failure to hold down higher education costs and provide a high enough share from taxpayer funding is spot on.  As the brisk Bacon’s Rebellion discussions on Richmond’s challenged schools illustrate, however, there are more than two Virginia’s.

The real headline in his talk was the discussion of the Virginia Tobacco Commission’s efforts and the poor results after so many bright ideas, so many grants, and so much money.  I remember the birth of that idea in the Office of the Attorney General under Mark Earley, Randolph Beales, Jerry Kilgore and then Judith W. Jadgmann – three of them with rural roots.  I signed for the first electronic transfer of tobacco settlement funds and the number of zeros made me woozy.

“Arguably, with some exceptions, such as Danville, the rural region of Southside and Southwest Virginia is in worse shape today than 20 years ago when the Tobacco Commission had more than $2 billion to “transform” the region as the legislation required. Look at the educational attainment levels,” Baliles said in his recent speech to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). Again, spot on.

Baliles’ idea to focus remaining tobacco settlement funds on educational attainment is a good one, but he also has his eyes on the burst of higher state tax revenue that will result when Virginia conforms to recent federal tax changes.  Never has so little money been earmarked by so many people for so many pet projects:  the earned income tax credit are K-12 school construction and reconstruction top a growing list. (More on that tomorrow.)

Rural Virginia, designated by that rough U-shaped ring of relative poverty around the corridors of wealth, has educational assets.  Baliles notes that 14 of the 23 community colleges are located there, but they are the smaller ones. Their doors are not battered by more applicants then they can handle, in most cases.  Virginia Tech, Radford and Longwood are state universities in the footprint, and the powerful New River Valley economy is fueled by the first two.

The problem is that young people get what education they do and then leave for the bright lights and the land of Uber.  Or they leave to get that next level of education.  For any number of reasons, once they have the opportunity they simply do not  stay in sufficient numbers to become a magnet for high tech or advanced manufacturing jobs in great numbers.  Many who stay lack that educational attainment and the opportunity it brings.

I cannot think of any policy, any economic development strategy, any spending plan coming out of the General Assembly that will change this pattern.

Virginia’s Highest-Paid State Employees

Charles Phlegar: Virginia’s highest paid state employee in 2017,

The Washington Business Journal has just published its database of the highest paid state employees in Virginia, and the list is dominated by people you never voted for, or in many cases people you’ve never even heard of. For the most part, the highest-paid state employees work for colleges and universities — not just any old college and university, but Virginia’s elite schools and research institutions.

Charles D. Phlegar tops the list, making $661,700.00 in 2017. Phlegar is vice president for Virginia Tech’s department of advancement, which means he runs the all-important fund-raising operations. He made more money than Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands, who raked in a salary of $527,850. (These numbers do not include non-salaried perks such as presidential residences, cars, and flunkies.)

At the University of Virginia, David S. Wilkes, dean of the school of medicine, snagged the top spot at an even $600,000. He beat out President Teresa Sullivan at $580,000. Other top earners at UVa included Jayakrishna Ambati ($590,400), a research scientist who may have discovered a cure for macular degeneration, and Irving L. Kron ($561,100), chair of the Department of Surgery who has since taken a top spot at the University of Arizona. 

Ambati and Kron illustrate the hyper-competition for top research talent. Ambati joined UVa in 2016 after directing the Kentucky Eye Institute in Lexington, Ky., while Kron departed from Charlottesville, where he had lived many years, to become Interim Executive Dean at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

For point of reference, Governor Ralph Northam is paid a salary of $175,000 yearly. But he does get cool perks like free rent in the Governor’s Mansion and a contingent of state police guards.

A major difference between Virginia’s research universities and everyone else is that the research universities can tap endowments and other sources of funds to supplement state salaries. Thus, UVa’s Sullivan was paid $197,620 in state salary p;us $362.210 in non-state salary. Adding up the salaries for the 148 highest-compensated administrators, coaches and professors at UVa, I found that they collectively earned $39 million in state salaries supplemented by $10.8 million in non-state salaries. Contrast that to a small, liberal arts institution like (to pick one at random) Longwood University. Of the 25 highest-paid administrators and profs, only one — President W. Taylor Revely — had his $154,000 state salary supplemented by outside funds.

Among state employees, competition is the most intense for university executives who can either (1) bring in lots of outside money, and (2) win football and basketball games (which translates into bringing in outside money, just in a different way). So, someone like economics professor Kenneth Elzinga, one of the most popular lecturers and teachers in the history of UVa, makes a handsome salary of $238,000 but doesn’t make a dime in supplementary salary.

What It Takes to Build Virginia’s Talent Pipeline

House Speaker Kirk Cox

It’s time to give Virginia’s colleges and universities some “tough love,”  House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said yesterday.

The answer to sky-rocketing increases in the cost of attending college is not tuition freezes, caps, unfunded mandates or other one-size-fits-all measures like those that surfaced in the General Assembly last session, the Speaker said in a speech to the GO Virginia Foundation board meeting in Richmond.

But he added: “If the higher education institutions do not come together with the state government and the business community to address affordability in a meaningful and tangible way… if they do not support common-sense reforms like the bill passed by the House of Delegates last session to allow public comment before raising tuition… then I fear there will be little anyone can do to stop a wave of policy proposals along those very lines.”

Cox issued the warning while addressing the broader topic of the link between workforce development and economic development. In the most concrete proposal of his speech, he called for partnerships between government, business and individual higher education institutions that spell out (1) what the school will commit, (2) what the state will invest, and (3) what the business partners will contribute.

“We don’t need more people playing politics with the price of education, but we also don’t need people with their heads in the sand, pretending the problem doesn’t exist,” he said. “We need people partnering in practical ways to bring the price of education down!”

There is no silver bullet or quick fix on college affordability. We need to move forward on a range of solutions: alternative pathways; transfer programs; online options; cost-saving innovations; more efficient collaboration among institutions; more help for students through financial aid, TAG grants, and work-study opportunities and so on. …

In the institutional partnership agreements that I envision … in return for a financial commitment from the Commonwealth, each school will make transparent commitments concerning the four-year net cost of attendance for in-state undergraduates, the internship and work-study opportunities that will be provided, and the maximum student loan debt levels that any Virginia student may incur.

Virginians cannot expect tuition predictability and restraint at the campus level if the General Assembly cannot provide “adequate, reliable funding,” Cox said in a reference to erratic state support for higher education. But he placed much of the onus for declining affordability and access on the higher-ed institutions.

“Higher education is at a pivotal moment,” Cox said. “We have never needed our higher ed system more than we do now … because it is the key to the talent pipeline, and the talent pipeline is the key to the future. But, at the same time, higher ed’s political position has never been shakier.” The bond of trust between colleges and elected officials “has never been more at risk.”

If our colleges and their leaders don’t recognize the shift in public opinion on higher education…. if they don’t understand how the populist message is resonating…. and if they don’t come to the table seriously on the points of greatest concern — affordability and accountability — then it is very likely that the criticism will reach critical mass, and it will be impossible to maintain the progress we have made.

The talent pipeline. In one of the most comprehensive speeches on workforce development to come from a Republican legislator in recent years, Cox affirmed the need for an educational system that provides young Virginians with the skills they need to participate in a growing economy.

“What we hear from Virginia businesses, large and small, is this: The main reason their business is not growing is they can’t find qualified workers.” At the same time, Virginia is experiencing a brain drain — unable to find good jobs here, people are leaving for better opportunities elsewhere. For four straight years, he said, Virginia has experienced a “net loss of talent” to other states.

The “build it and they will come” approach is not only ineffective. It costs too much… is too resistant to innovation… moves too slowly to keep up with the fast-changing economy… and, frankly, is too old-school and uncool to appeal to eager, creative, tech-savvy young people.

Cox embraced the goal of making Virginia the Top State for Talent, similar to the long-term objective stated by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) to make Virginia the best educated state in the country. But he stressed that increasing the number of college graduates must be accompanied by efforts to provide grads with meaningful employment, or they will leave. Continue reading

UVa’s $30 Million Raid on Tech’s Biocomplexity Initiative

Superstar faculty member Chris Barrett has leaped from Virginia Tech to UVa. Barrett is a global leader in applying computer science concepts and tools to make new discoveries in complex social systems.

The University of Virginia offered a biocomplexity research professor a 15% pay raise — to $450,000 — plus a rich set of fringe benefits to recruit him from Virginia Tech, according to Freedom of Information Act documents obtained by the Roanoke Times.

Chris Barrett, who was promised $30 million in startup funds, left his job as executive director of the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech to become the executive director of the Biocomplexity Initiative at UVa. He has persuaded at least seven of his Virginia Tech colleagues to join him in the move from Tech’s Arlington facility to UVa’s Fairfax health center at the Inova Bioinformatics campus.

Reports the Roanoke Times:

Barrett’s offer letter included a number of personal perks, including a $15,000 lump sum for moving expenses and temporary housing, a computer and cell phone, lab and office space including interim space, high performing computer resources and discretionary funds including a long-term rental car for use to travel to and from the Washington D.C., metro area and 10-15 business class trips worth up to $75,000 for the first year of his employment.

Perks were also guaranteed for other employees wishing to join Barrett. … Employees wishing to work for the initiative and Barrett could also be offered $15,000 for moving expenses and an allowance for temporary housing and “accelerated recruitment offer letters with appropriate faculty appointments and rank.”

Last week the University of Virginia Board of Visitors approved drawing $30 million from the university’s billion-dollar Strategic Investment Fund to fund the package.

Outwardly, Virginia Tech has displayed no sign of animosity toward UVa. According to the Roanoke Times: “UVa’s Executive Vice President and Provost Tom Katsouleas told The Daily Progress that he was working with Tech interim Provost Cyril Clarke to navigate the situation. Tech president Tim Sands said in the first week of new UVa President Jim Ryan’s tenure he called the new president to discuss the impending changes at the two universities.”

Bacon’s bottom line: There are at least two prisms through which to view this $30 million deal: (1) the impact on Virginia university efforts to build their R&D programs, and (2) the impact on the cost of attendance at the University of Virginia.

The recruitment of Barrett and other Tech professors undoubtedly represents a coup for UVa. Press reports do not say how much Barrett and his associates generate in research funding, but it must be a substantial sum to warrant a $30 million UVa investment. At the same time, the deal delivers a significant blow to Virginia Tech’s Biocomplexity Institute lab whose 50 tenure-track professors pulled in $103 million in award grants in the first six months of the last fiscal year. Viewed from the perspective of Virginia’s higher-education system, the deal does nothing to enhance the state’s R&D standing: UVa spent $30 million to shuffle Barrett and his research team from one Virginia research institution to another.

Legislators undoubtedly will be asking themselves, does it make sense for Virginia’s leading research institutions to poach superstar faculty from one another? If a Virginia university is going to spend $30 million to recruit a big name, shouldn’t it aim to bring in someone from outside the state?

The transaction also provides insight in how much it costs to play in the R&D big leagues. The annual cost of attendance at the University of Virginia is about $30,000.  For what it cost to recruit Barrett and his team, UVa could have offset the full tuition, fees, room, board and other expenses for 1,000 students for a year. (Or, if UVa had put the money into a scholarship endowment, it could pay total expenses for 50 students pretty much forever.)

The Board of Visitors can argue that undergraduate students won’t pay a dime toward the recruitment package, which is being financed by the Strategic Investment Fund — a superfund cobbled together from various working capital sources and reserves and invested at a higher rate of return than was achievable previously. But money is fungible. The Visitors just as easily could have devoted the money toward lower tuition & fees or increased financial aid. Alternatively, if advancing UVa’s institutional prestige was the foremost consideration, they could have used the funds to supplement salaries of humanities and social science professors. A $50,000 salary supplement goes a long way to hiring a nationally renowned professor of history or English.

It will be interesting to see what kind of Return on Investment UVa expects from its $30 million outlay. How much outside grant money will Barrett be able to bring to the university?

From a statewide higher-ed system perspective, the question is this: How much more grant money will Barrett bring in as a result of his new association with UVa and Inova than he would have generated as a Virginia Tech professor? Legislators should dig for answers.

Empower College Trustees with More Data

In the previous post Steve Haner shows how Virginia’s public universities have relentlessly jacked up tuition and fees since 2010. What can be done? Students and parents can pick other colleges and universities — but most institutions have been raising tuition & fees just as aggressively. Alternatively, the General Assembly can try micro-managing the institutions by capping tuition or other means, but such arbitrary actions create their own set of problems. Ideally, change would come from within. Faculty and administrators are trapped in their own self-interested world view, so we can’t expect anything from them. Reform, adapted to the unique conditions at each institution, must from come from Boards of Visitors.

James P. Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability & Public Trust (a former sponsor of Bacon’s Rebellion), delivered some ideas worth considering to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) this morning.

“When only one out of 200 Virginia trustees votes against a tuition hike, our trustees are really just administrative rubber stamps,” Toscano said.

We need to empower trustees with information that enables them to own up to their share of responsibility and work jointly with college presidents to create a true shared vision that isn’t just pro-institution but balances the interests of students, paying parents and the taxpaying public.

So … SCHEV should give trustees the tools they need to engage in substantive institution-level discussions of cost by developing a statewide report on program-level costs by institution. Until boards of visitors have access to this information and can grapple with it to address cost issues on their own, boards and presidents can’t even begin to engage on simply questions of Return on Investment and fulfill their governing obligations.

Finally … SCHEV should publicly support proposals that require boards of visitors to listen to the voices of students and paying parents and faculty and others before making tuition decisions.

In my observation, board members are easily railroaded by college administrators. Most know very little about higher-ed issues or financing when they join the boards, and by the time they figure out how things work, they rotate off. To a greater or lesser degree, administrators frame the issues in ways that are most advantageous to them and spoon-feed the data that they want board members to see. Board members don’t know enough to pose tough questions, even if they were disposed to do so. It would be extraordinarily beneficial if SCHEV could provide an alternate source of data and analysis pertaining to programmatic costs.

Rather than imposing draconian, one-size-fits-all solutions on Virginia’s colleges and universities, as legislators have tried unsuccessfully to do in the past, the General Assembly could accomplish far more good by empowering boards of trustees. Expand the scope of SCHEV’s data collection and analysis to encompass comprehensive cost data, fund two or three positions to beef up SCHEV’s data capabilities, and distribute an annual update on programmatic costs to every member of every board of visitors at a public Virginia institution.

Chain Reaction: Tuition Rises Due To Higher Tuition

Annual average increases since 2010 in General Fund (GF) support and in-state tuition and fees at each school, compared to the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI) and Consumer Price Index (CPI). At nine schools the state funds have lagged even the smaller inflation measure.  Source: House Appropriations Committee

Increased pay for faculty and administrators is one of the major cost drivers behind the continuing climb in tuition and fee charges, a member of the House Appropriations Committee staff told that committee Monday.   As those charges climb, the universities are also increasing the percentage of tuition revenue used to provide financial aid for students being priced out, transferring costs from one group of students to the other.

Anthony Maggio’s presentation went into details missing from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s own review of the cost increases.  His critical overview highlighted:

  • The six institutions that exceeded the tuition increases in their six-year plans. (Eight institutions including the Virginia Community College System stayed under the amounts in their plans.)
  • The amount the schools are still charging in their mandatory fees to support their athletic programs, now more than $1,500 at eight of fifteen schools and over $3,000 at one.  Legislation in 2015 slowed but has not stopped the growth.
  • A potential way he believes the universities may be shifting more research program costs onto the students’ tuition or fee payments, further explaining rising tuition.

Athletic charges included in mandatory comprehensive fees. Source: House Appropriations Committee

Maggio reported that Radford University increased tuition 7 percent instead of a planned 3 percent hike and blamed, among other things, enrollment loss and a commitment of funds to economic development activities.  The other schools that exceed their targets often mentioned salaries or fringe benefit costs.

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U.S. News Adds Another Perverse Incentive

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly, has long been a critic of the U.S. News & World-Report Best Colleges ranking. Writing in the Washington Post, he offers an analysis that is identical in ways to the indictment of America’s higher-education system we make here in Bacon’s Rebellion.

By focusing on factors like SAT scores, spending per student, alumni giving and surveys of peer institutional leaders, the rankings have long created incentives for college presidents eager for better U.S. News & World-Report scores to raise prices, compete for status and market themselves to the children of the affluent. In this way, U.S. News has been both a driver and a validator of an increasingly elitist and dysfunctional American higher education system. …

We’ve lavished more and more attention and dollars on a small number of highly selective schools that increasingly cater to upper-income families, while the bottom 90 percent of students struggle to pay tuition typically at underfunded public institutions, or, worse, at predatory for-profit schools.

I agree entirely with this critique. Unfortunately, in his zeal to combat elitism, Glastris advances ideas that are potentially pernicious as well. He lauds U.S. News for updating its ranking methodology to favor colleges and universities that “succeed at enrolling and graduating students from low-income families.” Indeed, he argues that U.S. News should give more weight to what he calls “social mobility” metrics, as Washington Monthly does in its own annual college rankings.

Underlying his argument is this core proposition: “Because of changes in the economy, a post-secondary credential has gone from something every American ought to have a right to pursue to something every American needs to pursue just to have a shot at the middle class.”

Let me be clear: Socio-economic mobility is a good thing. I believe in creating a society that rewards merit and provides opportunity for all. However, I worry that Glastris’s idea can easily go off the rails.

First, a “post-secondary credential” is a very different thing from a “college education.” For hundreds of thousands of Virginians, a post-secondary credential may provide skill sets that open up jobs requiring some technical knowledge such as plumbers, electricians, HVAC repairmen, cable TV installers, and IT help desk workers. It is unquestionably in the public interest to ensure that Virginians have affordable access to community colleges and career colleges (which U.S. News & World-Report does not rank), which provide those highly marketable skills. But we should not leap to the idea that everyone should have a shot at a four-year, residential college education, which is implied by Glastris’ emphasis on applying social-mobility metrics to all colleges and universities, including institutions that cater to the cognitive elite.

Here in Virginia we have a system of higher education, in which different institutions fill different niches. The University of Virginia and College of William & Mary cater to Virginians (as well as a significant number of out-of-state students) who belong to the cognitive elite. Their curricula and academic standards are geared toward students with the strongest verbal and mathematical skills. Other public institutions cater to students with skills and academic backgrounds that aren’t quite as high, and some to students whose skills are considerably lower. While it is praiseworthy for a UVa or W&M to aggressively recruit academically qualified students from lower-income backgrounds and to make sure they can afford the cost of attendance, it would be a misallocation of resources — and, just as importantly, a dis-service to the students — to admit students who lack the wherewithal to compete successfully. Students who struggle at UVa might prosper at, say, George Mason University or Virginia Commonwealth University.

When U.S. News & World-Report gives weight to “social mobility” metrics, it incentivizes that very misallocation. Under social justice logic, the responsibility to provide higher-ed access to lower-income Virginians belongs not to Virginia’s higher-ed institutions as a system, but also to UVa and W&M as individual institutions. But the proper way to foster upward mobility is for all institutions to define their niche, identify the students appropriate to that niche, recruit them, and serve them well — in other words to place students where they will prosper. If you take issue with a system that lavishes resources upon elite institutions, then target the tax breaks for alumni donations and endowments by which elite institutions perpetuate their elite status. (For the record, Glastris does express approval of a provision in the 2017 tax code that taxes large university endowments.)

A second and related concern is that the obsession over lower-income Virginians attending college overlooks the terrible reality of collapsing academic standards in many Virginia public high schools, especially those that serve low-income students, raising the question of whether many grads belong in college at all. Many metrics by which we gauge the performance of Virginia’s high schools are untrustworthy. Social promotion is rampant. Administrators manipulate high school drop-out and graduation rates. More students than ever require remedial schooling in college. Promoting the idea that “every American” needs to pursue higher education just increases the stakes, intensifies these pathologies, encourages kids to attend college when they shouldn’t, and loads drop-outs with student-loan debt they cannot repay.

Yes, it is vital that Virginia provide pathways of upward mobility for all of its citizens. Yes, we should ensure that academically qualified students from lower-income households have the means to attend the best institutions they can gain admittance to. Yes, we should be skeptical of a U.S. News & World-Report ranking system that incentivizes colleges and universities to squander resources in the competition for status. But ranking higher-ed institutions according to “social mobility” metrics just adds another layer of perverse incentives.

A Model Transfer Program That Should Be Copied

Under prodding from the General Assembly that goes back years, Virginia’s four-year institutions are finally developing an easier path from community college to a bachelor’s degree.  Unfortunately for students, it is spreading slowly.  Unfortunately for anybody obstructing the process, there is one place where the full potential is being realized and proving the concept.

The dual enrollment and transfer relationship between Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University is so seamless the community college students have GMU identification cards and access to GMU recreational facilities.  The Nova Advance program works for 20 degrees with a goal of expanding to 50 possible degrees.  Community college students have access to advising and other forms of support from the start.

Paying community college prices for two years saves $15,000 or more towards a bachelor’s degree.  Also, before this process community college transfers often found they needed more credits than traditional students, adding additional and wasted cost.  With the early guidance toward the right courses and firm agreements to accept the credits the standard 120 credit hours should now do it.

GMU Vice President for Academic Innovation Michelle Marks said getting this ready for launch this term “is the most complicated process I’ve ever worked on.”  Hundreds of faculty members at both schools had a hand in course and program design.  They planned to start with five degrees, but the enthusiasm pushed them way beyond that.  “People wanted to do this,” she said.

There will be some lost revenue for both schools but the presidents of both see this as “right for the families and right for the students.” Marks said.   The first 129 Advance students are in class now, with 189 more lined up to start in the spring.  The long-term growth plan runs to four digits.

This past summer, Virginia Commonwealth University and the two Richmond community colleges announced they are working on a similar program, but on a  smaller scale and limited to arts and humanities degrees.  Previously about 75 students per year have switched from John Tyler or J. Sargeant Reynolds to VCU.

The new program will take three years to implement, with the first year (underway now) spent on evaluation and planning, and is supported by $2.4 million over the period from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  It will be another year from now before students enter the pipeline.

Jeff Kraus of the Virginia Community College System mentioned three other working relationships, involving Virginia Tech, James Madison and the University of Virginia and their neighboring community colleges.

Sharon Morrissey

These examples do make a key point: What is working is a relationship between the four-year school and its neighboring community college or colleges, rather than a statewide, system-wide focus.  “Community college students are not going to travel to the other end of the state to finish a degree,” said Sharon Morrissey, VCCS Vice Chancellor for Academic Services.  The dream remains far more widespread portability of transfer credits from community colleges.

The General Assembly started pressing this forward years ago with the classic carrot, financial aid in the form of a program of scholarships for VCCS transfers to four-year programs.  Those transfer grants have grown to almost $4 million per year, and the 2,500 students using them this term can receive up to $3,000 per year if seeking a science, technology, engineering or math degree at one of the major institutions.

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