Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

Our Little Five Billion

UVa President James Ryan

by James A. Bacon

University fund-raisers are like presidential elections — as soon as one campaign ends, another one starts. Here in the Old Dominion, the University of Virginia is in the midst of a $5 billion boodle-building campaign. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is raising $1.5 billion, the College of William & Mary $1 billion, Virginia Commonwealth University $750 million, and George Mason University $500 million. That’s pretty serious dough. For purposes of comparison: Harvard, the wealthiest institution of higher education in the country (and probably the world), raised $9.6 billion in its last five-year campaign.

It never ceases to fascinate me how higher ed, which obsesses over issues of racial and socio-economic equity, has become such an engine of elitism. Donors get tax write-offs for their contributions, and public university endowments pay no taxes on income. (The 2017 federal tax law imposes a 1.4% excise tax on private-institution endowments worth $500,000 or more per student.) Here in Virginia, public university endowments also are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Sweet deal — tax breaks out the  wazoo, and freedom from public scrutiny! All to benefit whom? Faculty, administrators and, disproportionately, the children of the well-to-do.

Not surprisingly, university administrators cast their pitches for mo’ money as benefiting students and the public — more financial aid, more enriching education, more research, and, of course, as UVa President James E. Ryan, puts it, a “fearless search for truth.”

You can’t spend $5 billion without doing some good for somebody. But it bothers me that almost no one ever pushes back. No one ever questions the fund-raising goals. No one asks if the money could be spent to better effect elsewhere. There are rare exceptions — listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, “My Little Hundred Million.” But you never hear such voices in Virginia. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Cloudy Day Edition

Neo-Nazies on the loose. I’ve been highly critical of Attorney General Mark Herring for spinning state crime statistics to imply that there has been a surge in white supremacist hate crimes in Virginia. But that’s not to say there aren’t hateful white supremacists residing in the the state. The Daily Beast describes how an FBI crackdown on the so-called “Atomwaffen Division,” which it describes as a “homicidal neo-Nazi guerilla organization,” has netted criminal charges against two alleged members of the group’s Virginia cell. In June, the FBI arrested Brian Patricks Baynes, of Fairfax, on gun possession charges. And in September, the bureau arrested 21-year-old Andrew Jon Thomasberg, of McLean. The white-supremacist threat is real, and it must be taken seriously. But let’s not blow that threat out of proportion.

The Staunton Miracle. Rural Virginia may be in an economic funk, but Virginia’s smaller metros seem to be holding up pretty well. The Staunton/Waynesboro labor market has the lowest unemployment rate of any in the state — 2.5%, according to August 2019 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as reported by the News Leader. Next lowest: Charlottesville and Winchester at 2.6%, Harrisonburg at 2.7%, and Roanoke at 2.8%. Among major metros, Richmond is the lowest at 2.9%. We hear all the time — and I have perpetuated this narrative — that most of the jobs are going to the big metros. Is this true? We can’t tell from unemployment data alone. We also need to look at job creation, under-employment and workforce-participation rates. Regardless, it’s good to see that almost everyone who wants a job in small-metro Virginia seems to have one.

A voice for the voiceless. The Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a former sponsor of this blog, is making progress toward building Virginia’s first coalition to address the affordability crisis in higher education. The Virginia College Affordability Policy Council met last week to discuss solutions to problems of affordability and workforce readiness. Co-chairs include James V. Koch, former president of Old Dominion University, and Brett A. Vassey, president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association. The group has recruited a wide range of businesses and trade associations as members. You can view Koch’s presentation here.

JLARC: Medicaid Jumps 19% In Expansion Year

Source: JLARC October 7 report on state spending over time, in this case a decade of sustained economic growth with no recession.

By Steve Haner

Every year, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission issues a report looking at ten years of state spending, sliced and diced various ways. In recent years, the headline results have largely been surprisingly consistent and the 2019 report issued Monday fit the pattern. As seen before:

  • Medicaid program costs lead the charge, exploding almost 19% in one year due to the expansion that started January 1, 2019, even though the fiscal year was one-half over by then. It went from $10 billion to $11.9 billion. The average annual growth over the decade has exceeded 7% and $600 million.
  • Keeping up with Medicaid, and exceeding it in some categories, are the various forms of transportation spending. In the decade since the base year of the report, fiscal year 2010, Virginia has passed both statewide and regional transportation tax increases, and various toll projects have been completed – all flowing through the state’s books.
  • The third budget element that has seen major growth is higher education, with the vast majority of the new money coming from tuition, fees and auxiliary operations at the state schools, not state tax dollars. When all the schools are lumped together, their spending growth is right in line with the other two mega programs, and the higher education totals push past the growth in state funds transferred for local public schools. Local public schools don’t charge tuition and fees they can raise at will.
  • Virginia’s general economic performance lagged the national average for the entire decade, with average annual gross domestic product growth of 1.4% (versus 2.2% nationally), per capita income growth of 2.8% (versus 3.4% nationally) and labor force growth of 0.9% (versus 1.5% nationally.)  The GDP is adjusted for inflation.

Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Higher Ed Updates

Image credit: Virginia Tech

Billion dollar baby. You know Virginia Tech has made the big time when its projects hit the $1 billion mark. That’s how much Tech’s innovation campus in Alexandria, which is tied to Amazon’s HQ project, will ultimately cost. The first phase, a 300,000-square-foot academic building, will cost a mind-bending $275 million, reports the Washington Business Journal. (If it’s any consolation, that figure does include the cost of furniture.) Eventually, the campus will total 1 million square feet of space, including incubator space for new startups, offices for industry collaboration, and convening space for alumni events as well as ground-floor retail “knitting the campus into the fabric of Alexandria.”

VCU R&D Hits Record. Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia’s third-ranked research university, raised a record $310 million in sponsored research funding in fiscal year 2019, reports Virginia Business. The number represents a 14.6% increase from the previous year. The top recipient was the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products, which will launch a five-year study predicting outcomes of government regulations of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

Enrollment up at UVa and W&M. Fall 2019 enrollment numbers are coming in for public universities, and the news is good — at least for the top-tier institutions, according to this Forbes magazine tally. Here in the Old Dominion, the University of Virginia reports a first-year class size of 3,920 students, an increase of 80. Despite aggressive tuition increases in recent years, the College of William & Mary reports anticipated enrollment holding steady around 1,540, down only six students from the previous year. So far, falling college enrollments have hit mainly community colleges and small liberal-arts institutions.

— JAB

UVa’s Booming R&D Program: What It Means

University of Virginia research funding. Source: UVa.

by James A. Bacon

One can debate how well the University of Virginia is serving the interests of students, families and the general citizenry through its aggressive increases in tuition, fees, and other costs of attendance. But there is no denying that Virginia’s No. 2 research university has been successful at attracting outside research dollars.

Sponsored research funding has increased from $311 million in 2014-15 to $412 million in in 2018-19 — a 32.5% increase, according to data recently released by the university.

“Our outstanding teams of faculty, staff and students across all the schools have propelled us over the $400 million mark in research funding,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Liz Magill. “Meanwhile, researchers … are targeting interdisciplinary approaches that improve the chances of receiving grants down the road.” Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Many Grand Schemes but No Numbers on Cost

VCU’s new master plan. You can tell when you’ve entered most universities because you must pass through impressive-looking gates. You don’t know when you’ve entered Virginia Commonwealth University because the urban university bleeds into the surrounding community. The university’s new ONE VCU master plan will address that by creating two create two “Front Door” projects identifying entrances to the campus, reports Virginia Business. The land use/facilities planning document also calls for improving pedestrian safety — there were 47 pedestrian accidents in 2018-19 — addressing the parking shortage at the medical campus, and providing more bike lanes, among other initiatives. No numbers on cost.

Carbon Neutrality by 2050. Governor Ralph Northam set a goal earlier this month of a zero-carbon electric grid by 2050. Arlington County has gone one better: total carbon neutrality within three decades. The plan approved Saturday envisions a locality where “all electricity will come from renewable sources, where more residents will drive electric vehicles and more will use transit, and where homes and buildings will be more energy efficient,” reports ARL Now. While some hailed the plan, others said it wasn’t ambitious enough and relies too much on technology-based solutions. No numbers on cost.

Mo’ money for schools! Adjusted for inflation, state funding for K-12 education per student is still down 8% from pre-recession levels, finds the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis (CI) in a new report. That sounds terrible — no wonder our schools are having so much trouble! — but the report doesn’t tell us the full picture of what student funding looks like when accounting for federal support and local spending. Is per student spending up, down, the same? CI doesn’t say. However, the report does contain some useful information on inputs — changes in the number of teachers, instructors, support staff, and teacher aides. The assumption is that more spending and more staff = better outcomes. Does it? No numbers on that.

— JAB

Update: I have re-written the original post on “Mo’ money for schools” to reflect the fact that CI provides more data in its report than I originally acknowledged. Further update: Upon reflection, I regret my knee-jerk reaction to CI’s implicit call for mo’ money. The statistical profiles of each school district contain loads of information — especially on staffing levels — not readily available anywhere else.  Kudos to CI to bringing more transparency to school funding and staffing. I fully intend to draw upon this data in future posts.

Bacon Bits: River Preservation, Truth in Tuition, and Election Interference

Goat Island

Good deed of the day. Riverside Outfitters, which provides guided kayak, raft, tube, and paddleboard trips, has paid $11,000 to purchase Goat Island, a one-acre islet in the James River. The outfitting company will make the island openly available for public use as a destination for canoers and paddleboarders, reports Richmond BizSense. The company plans to rid non-native plants from the islet and, if legal, bring back some goats, but has no plans to develop it. The James River may not be as big and powerful as other rivers, but it is more beautiful than most. While other metropolitan develop their riverfronts, the Richmond region has moved to preserve the James as an environmental and recreational treasure. Smart move!

Truth in tuition. Randolph College has slashed its list price for tuition, room, and board from $54,101 to $36,000. Pursuing a high-tuition, high-discount model, the small liberal arts college near Lynchburg had been discounting heavily from that price. But administrators concluded that the high sticker price was scaring away potential applicants, reports the News & Advance. Not realizing that the average discount rate for freshmen at private colleges averages more than 50%, many families don’t even bother applying to schools with high list prices. Randolph College, which has 620 students enrolled, hopes to increase the entering class by 5% yearly over the next five years.

Dodge Challenger has become a verb. Daniel McMahon of Brandon, Fla., has been arrested for charges relating to cyber-stalking and threats that led to an African-American activist, Don Gathers, dropping out of a race for Charlottesville City Council. McMahon, a white supremacist, “was motivated by racial animus and used his social-media accounts to threaten and intimidate a potential candidate for elective office,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen, in a statement. “Hey Antifa, it’s simple,” McMahon wrote online, reports the Washington Post. “Wanna know how to not get Dodge Challenged or shot? Don’t attack Right Wingers ever.” James Fields, the white supremacist who killed Heather Heyer during the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville two years ago, drove a Dodge Challenger. Disgusting.

— JAB

Bacon Bits: Dark Money Update

Things Go Better with Koch. George Mason University wants its university foundation board to be exempt from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. But Transparent GMU, a student group, has sued the foundation to turn over records of agreements with private donors, in particular those from the conservative-libertarian Charles Koch Foundation. University officials have conceded that agreements with the Koch organization had strings attached giving it input into the hiring of faculty associated with its gifts. A circuit court judge sided with the university last summer. Now the case has made it to the Virginia Supreme Court. Oral arguments were heard yesterday, reports the Virginia Mercury.

The case raises legitimate legal issues, as described in the article. But as a matter of public policy, it seems evident that university foundations, which administer billions of dollars for public Virginia universities, are integral components of the institutions, and their activities are closely coordinated. I side with Transparent GMU and say that GMU’s foundations — indeed all public college foundations — should be subject to FOIA.

Of course, I also say that Transparent GMU also should be more, well… transparent. The student group’s Facebook page reveals nothing about where it gets its money. It’s highly unlikely, however, that a bunch of students could afford to appeal the case all the way to the state Supreme Court. Where did Transparent GMU’s money come from? There is probably a connection with UnKoch My Campus, a well-funded organization devoted to dogging the Charles Koch Foundation around the country. But UnKoch My Campus is itself less than fully transparent about where its money comes from. Time for a little less hypocrisy and more transparency all around.

What does ACRONYM stand for? ACRONYM, a self-described political organization “committed to building progressive power and creating sustainable digital infrastructure for the progressive movement,” has donated $150,000 to the Democratic Party of Virginia, reports The Washington Free Beacon — tied for the largest single donation the party has received this year. Continue reading

Yup, Virginia Universities Discriminate Against Asians

What would Mr. Jefferson say?

by James A. Bacon

A study of five Virginia public universities shows that admission policies at all five institutions discriminate against Asian applicants after accounting for standardized test scores and high-school grade point averages. The University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, the two most selective institutions, also discriminate against whites in favor of blacks and Hispanics.

Based on data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Althea Nagai, a research fellow at the Center for Equal Opportunity, a right-of-center think tank, reached the following conclusions:

“At UVA and especially at WM, blacks were given substantial admissions preference over whites … (controlling for SAT scores, GPAs, gender, residence, and legacy). To a lesser extent, Hispanics also received preference over whites at these two schools. …

White applicants (along with blacks and Hispanics) were favored over Asian Americans at all five institutions. The other universities included in the study were Virginia Tech, James Madison University, and George Mason University. Continue reading

Politico’s Juicy Tale of Liberty and the Falwells

by Peter Galuszka

Jerry Falwell Jr. is hitting the news big time following a Politico investigation that alleges self-dealing and sexual misconduct by the powerful head of the evangelical Christian school Liberty University.

More than two dozen Liberty officials and Falwell associates working for Falwell as a “dictatorship” where people are afraid of discussing issues involving him and the school. One allegedly said, “we’re not a school, we’re a hedge fund.”

Personally, I would not really care much about the inner workings of a private, religious school.

What makes this different is that the Falwell family has been major force in conservative, Christian politics for decades. Liberty’s phenomenal growth from a small bible school to a $3 billion operation with more than 100,000 students is a remarkable story.

Falwell’s and the Lynchburg school’s support of Donald Trump is curious given its intensity and contradictions due to Trump’s serial adultery and taped recorded admissions of sexual abuse. Liberty is so strict it hands out demerits or even expels students for what it considers sexual misconduct. Continue reading

The Dualistic Nature of Technology in Schools

Wi-Fi-enabled school bus in Bath County. Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

by James A. Bacon

In Bath County Google has wired school buses, turning them into “rolling study halls for students with long commutes and sometimes patchy or nonexistent Wi-Fi at home,” reports the Wall Street Journal. The pilot program, being funded in 15 school districts in 13 states, will last at least through the end of the school year.

Clearly, technology can do wonderful things to help children learn. Accessing the Internet can open up a world of knowledge. Students can watch taped lectures outside classroom so teachers can use their face time applying and discussing the content. Technology can enable personalized learning, adapted to children’s individual learning styles and pace of learning. Distance learning can deliver specialized courses, such as Latin or Japanese, to rural school districts where the courses would otherwise be unavailable. 

Responding to this siren call, many Virginia school districts have invested heavily in providing laptops and computers to their students. More recently, Virginia became the first state in the country to mandate the teaching of computer science and coding. Standards of Learning for Computer Science, finalized in 2017, will be taught starting in the 2019-20 academic year. Continue reading

Wonk Alert: Cool New Interactive Map

University of Virginia acceptance rate, 2017-18. Source: Virginia Public Access Project based on SCHEV data.

If you were a high school graduate from Dickenson County applying for admittance to the University of Virginia, the odds of getting accepted in 2017 and 2018 were 100%. If you were a high school graduate from Fairfax County, the odds were only a little better than one in three (37.7%). Sounds pretty unfair, huh?

But, then, you’ve got to consider that only three high school grads from Dickenson County even applied to UVa. Some 6,300 grads from Fairfax County applied.

Those data points and many, many more can be found in an informational graphic published on the Virginia Public Access Project. The interactive map is based on State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) data. Continue reading

An Alternative College Ranking

Coinciding with our discussions here on Bacon’s Rebellion about higher education, I just received the annual Washington Monthly issue with its college rankings.

The Monthly takes a significantly different approach to ranking colleges and universities than does the U.S. News and World Report. It identifies the aspects it feels are important in making a college or university “good.” After establishing those qualities, it uses quantitative measures to rank each school.

The three basic qualities, or functions, if you will, are: Social Mobility, Research, and Service. In its methodology, these qualities are weighted equally. To come up with its overall rankings, the magazine uses the following quantitative measures: Continue reading

The Death of David Koch

by Peter Galuszka

Imagine the coincidence. On Friday I was reading business writer Christopher Leonard’s excellent “Kochland” book on the hard-right, billionaire industrialists, Charles and David Koch. I put my Nook down for a moment to check the news. David Koch had died at age 79.

He, his brother, the rest of the family and their sprawling, secretive business empire based on oil trading and petrochemicals are fascinating topics. And, the Kochs, especially Charles, have had a huge influence in Virginia as they spread their gospel of free market libertarianism.

David Koch, who lived in New York City rather than Wichita, the headquarters of Koch Industries, had been known as a man-about-town.He was a bachelor until later in life and gave freely to medical research and the arts.

Gifts include $100 million for cancer research art his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he still held the record for the most points ever scored in a school basketball game. He also gave $100 million to underwrite a ballet theater at the Lincoln Center in New York.

When he died, David and his brother were each worth about $50 billion. They got their money by running the family business, which buys and sells oil and distributes it through pipelines. They also have petrochemical plants where they make plastics used in windows, clothing and a lot more.

With Charles taking the lead, they developed a tough corporate control system that involved loyalty, secrecy and tough discipline. According to Leonard’s even-handed book, they Kochs were accused of making millions by cheating oil producers by under-reporting the amount of crude oil they received. The company settled the case. That and smart business led to success. Continue reading

Community Colleges and the Opportunity Society

Increase in undergraduate, in-state tuition & fees between 2015-16 academic year and 2019-20 academic year. Data source: SCHEV

by James A. Bacon

What does it take to create an Opportunity Society? One critical element is providing Virginians with the skills they need to be employable in the occupations of the future. Nearly three out of five jobs created between now and 2026 will be “middle skill” jobs requiring community- or career-college training, not a four-year college degree. A majority of Virginians, therefore, will look to the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) for their ticket to the middle class.

Virginia’s community college system doesn’t get its due. The VCCS board is acutely aware of the affordability issue, and it has made it a priority to limit increases in tuition and fees. I thought it would be interesting to contrast the VCCS’s success in that regard to the runaway tuition-and-fees increases at Virginia’s public four-year residential colleges. I took the latest data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) Tuition and Fees database to compare increases between the 2015-16 academic year and the current 2019-20 academic year.

You can see from the chart above that the community colleges have done a far superior job of keeping charges under control. Community colleges on average increased T&F only 8.1% over the four-year period compared to a range for the four-years of 10.1% for Virginia State University to 22% for the College of William & Mary. (Richard Bland, a two-year residential college is an extreme outlier.)

What accounts for the difference? Continue reading