Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

“Stop Destroying Our Diploma Value!”

College of William and Mary Board of Visitors.

I’ve long been astonished by the apathy of Virginia university alumni about the policies pursued by their alma mater’s boards of trustees. Once someone graduates, I suppose they lose interest in tuition, fees, room, and board — expenses they don’t have to pay anymore. (At least they don’t worry about them until they have to send their own kids to college.)

But judging from this petition on Change.org, it turns out that alumni do care about something — their university’s reputation. Insofar as the institution’s prestige influences their job prospects, they are enthralled when colleges climb in the U.S. News & World-Report rankings and distressed when they fall.

The petition is hardly a sign of rebellion. It’s more like a plaintive cry in the wilderness. But I have not seen the likes of it before.

An anonymous poster identifying him(her)self only as “Concerned Citizen” addressed the following complaint to the College of William & Mary Board of Visitors:

We fell another 6 points in the latest (2018-19) US News College Rankings (from #32 to #38). Provost Halleran came out and made the usual excuses (he’s conveniently leaving and so are a lot of other employees).  The USN&WR rankings are the “gold standard” of college rankings.  Because of your negligence and low standards, student applications will drop next year and job placement will be negatively affected (there is a proven correlation between this ranking, applications and placement).

While I lament the focus on college rankings, I am heartened to see Concerned Citizen making some substantive arguments regarding academic quality, administrative bloat, board composition, faculty productivity, and the lack of an independent alumni association. The most damning charge focuses on the new curriculum:

The new COLL curriculum is a debasement of the former GER requirements.  Also, there are more than 20 “studies” programs that undermine our academic quality.  We are not preparing our students for the real world like we used to.  Why would we saddle our students with debt if their degrees are unmarketable?

The petitioner’s observation about the alumni association is an indictment of higher education I hadn’t heard before:

The ‘W&M Alumni Association’ is controlled by the Administration and is now a branch of the Development Office. In other words, the College wants your money but not your opinion. The College does everything possible to control the narrative and squelch criticism.

The criticism rings true. Alumni associations of the three institutions where I earned degrees function as propaganda arms of the administration rather than independent stakeholders in a system with institutional checks and balances. Alumni associations function to neuter the alumni as a constituency to be reckoned with.

One aspect of the petition bothers me. By citing William & Mary’s tumble in the U.S. News & World-Report Top Colleges ranking, the petition will only encourage university officials to redouble their fixation on rankings, skewing priorities and resource allocation in order to improve standings. As has been amply demonstrated on this blog, the ratings chase and limitless search for prestige are a big part of what ails higher education today.

Still, I applaud any critical analysis by Virginia alumni. Only nine individuals have signed the petition to date, so Concerned Citizen may be speaking mainly for himself. On the other hand, one can hope that the petition is a sign of a quiet but growing restiveness. Time will tell.

Drum Roll, Please. And the Top Ranked Virginia Colleges Are…

Oh, my, U.S. News & World-Report has just published its Best College rankings for 2018. Poring through college rankings is like slowing down on the  Interstate to check out a car wreck — you know you shouldn’t do it, and you know it’s a waste of time, but you do it anyway. So, for your viewing pleasure, here are the rankings for Virginia’s public universities:

Corrections: Mary Washington University should read “University of Mary Washington.” The tuition at Hollins University is $39,035.


What stands out to me is the marked contrast in tuition levels at public and private institutions. The sticker price for public institutions is significantly lower that for the privates. On average Virginia’s public universities charge $13,575 in tuition and fees. On average the privates charge $33,650. (These expenses do not include room, board, textbooks or other expenses.)

Of course, there is a world of difference between the list price and the “net” price after institutionally provided financial aid. Wealthy private schools with big endowments such as Washington & Lee University and the University of Richmond can afford to knock their prices way down for select groups of students, but others are hard pressed to compete.

If your kid wants to go to a southern regional university, where would you prefer to send him or her — to Mary Washington (ranked 19, tuition $11,630) or Mary Baldwin (ranked 31, tuition $34,140)?

I’ve spilled much digital ink on this blog worrying about the public institutions pricing themselves out of the market. I still think there is abundant reason for concern. But my analysis heretofore has not given sufficient weight to the extraordinarily high cost of the private colleges. As families become ever more desperate to hold down the cost of attendance, more will change their preferences from private to public, in effect creating a safety valve for the publics.

The Commonwealth provides a small subsidy for Virginia students attending private Virginia colleges, but not enough to noticeably close the gap. The private schools can pitch their small class sizes and close teacher-student relations all they want, but they are selling to a shrinking market. I wonder how many of them have a long-term future.

Update: If college administrators aren’t going into panic mode, they should be. Glassdoor, the job search blog, reports on 15 major companies – including Google, Apple, Starbucks, Costco, Whole Foods, Hilton and Publix — that are relaxing their college-degree requirement for many higher-paying jobs. When big employers stop using college diplomas as a credential, they start looking for specific competencies, not degrees. And that spells disaster for colleges selling credentials.

As I’ve been researching the family/corporate history of the A.T. Massey Coal Company in my paying gig, I’ve been struck by the number of business leaders who emerged in the first half of the 20th century with little higher education. The lack of a college degree did not stop them from becoming successful business leaders. They supplemented on-the-job learning with night school to acquire specific skills they needed.

Distracting from the Big Issues at W&L

Lee Chapel at Washington & Lee University

Washington & Lee University is the latest in a growing line of higher-ed institutions to engage in navel gazing and self-flagellation over its historical role in slavery and racial oppression. While honesty and candor in such matters is always called for — it is all too easy to sweep uncomfortable legacies under the rug — W&L’s priorities are largely misplaced. W&L, like other elite institutions, should be examining the role it plays in perpetuating elitism and tax-exempt privilege today. Of course, that would require asking truly uncomfortable questions for the people who benefit from institutional arrangements now, not those who ran the university a century ago.

The Washington Post’s higher-ed writer Susan Svrluga writes today of how President William Dudley has convened a group to “lead us on an examination of how our history — and the ways that we teach, discuss, and represent it — shapes our community.”

The matter is an especially delicate one when the “Lee” in Washington & Lee was none other than Robert E. Lee, who is buried with his family on the campus. Dudley must pursue a delicate balancing act placating both progressive activists in the faculty and student body, who revile Lee and his association with slavery and the Confederacy, and conservative alumni, who revere the general and university president for his personal integrity and role in knitting together a war-torn nation.

The unremitting focus on the past, which is paralleled by similar initiatives at the University of Virginia and other universities, serves the function of distracting attention from how higher education has become a bastion of liberal-progressive privilege today. Indeed, one suspects, that’s the entire point.

Tuition and fees at W&L was $50,170 for the 2017-18 school year — a 10% increase from three years previously. (For point of reference, the Consumer Price Index increased 3.7% over that period.) Room, board and other expenses, which decreased slightly, brought the total to $65,950, according to College Navigator.

Admittedly, that’s the sticker price, and only the wealthiest families pay the full freight. W&L discounts heavily depending on financial need, providing grants and financial aid to 57% of the student body. Here are the figures for average net price by income bracket in 2016-17:

College Navigator calculates average net price by subtracting the average amount of federal, state/local government, or institutional grant or scholarship aid from the total cost of attendance. While W&L does discount tuition for members of the middle class, the net price — $38,000 — is still extremely high for two-income, middle-class families making middle-class salaries amounting to more than $110,000 a year.

While higher-ed institutions like to emphasize that the net price is much lower than the listed price, over the past two years at W&L, the net price increased even more rapidly than the sticker price. Between 2014-15 and 2016-17, the net price increased 17% to $25,029. Unlike Virginia’s public universities, W&L cannot blame cuts in state support for the soaring cost of attendance.

W&L financial statements make a point of informing readers that the tuition charged does not cover the full cost of educating its students. In the 2016-17 school year, that cost was put at $63,000 per student. The previous year, the implicit subsidy was calculated to be slightly more than $13,400 per student per year. That balance was made up largely through the tax-deductible donations of alumni — $22.7 million in 2015-16 — and revenues from W&L’s tax-exempt endowment.

A couple of points are worth making here. First, a $63,000 cost per student sounds extraordinarily high. It may be peanuts compared to the tax-free sums lavished upon the students at elite Ivy League schools, but it is mind-boggling by any other measure. I can’t begin to imagine what kind of costs are baked into that figure, and the financial statements don’t tell us. W&L is not a research university, so there aren’t any hidden subsidies for laboratories, graduate students and super-star research faculty. Perhaps the faculty-student ratio is really low, and students benefit from small class sizes. Perhaps W&L has extravagant administrative overhead. It would be interesting to know.

Second, despite generous financial aid provided for lower-income students, the student body still is overwhelmingly affluent. College Navigator does not provide student household-income data, but it does provide a proxy — average SAT scores, which is closely correlated with income. The average SAT scores for reading and writing are 680 (25th percentile) and 740 (75th percentile). That’s high –a hair higher than the University of Virginia.

Even though W&L adopts an income-redistribution tuition model that sticks it to the middle class, the institution benefits from lavish tax breaks that benefit both an affluent student body and left-leaning professors and administrators. (I don’t know if W&L’s faculty and administrators are more liberal/leftist in their views and teaching than their peers at other institutions, but I feel safe in saying that they are more liberal/leftist than the tax-paying population as a whole.)

As a tax-exempt nonprofit, W&L pays no property taxes, sales taxes, BPOL taxes, machine-and-tool taxes, sales taxes, or corporate income taxes. It’s income (referred to as an “operating surplus”) is nominal, but the other tax breaks are significant. Meanwhile, W&L alumni enjoy tax deductions for the $20 million or so they donate every year to subsidize students’ tuition. And the $1.5 billion W&L endowment, which in 2016-17 had reported an 11.4% compounded rate of return over 10 years, is non-taxable.

I haven’t decided whether the biggest beneficiaries of the system are the privileged students who attend W&L or the privileged employees of an institution that relentlessly increases tuition & fees, benefits from taxpayer subsidies, and obsesses over the historical sins of their forebears. Either way, the question should stimulate a good discussion. And either way, it’s a discussion that we are less likely to have while fixating on century-old issues like slavery and Jim Crow.

About those WSJ College Rankings…

Ranked 51st in the country? Say it ain’t so!

If you believe the U.S. News & World-Report college rankings have any value, you might be disappointed to see that the University of Virginia was rated merely the 25th best national university in the country in 2018. But alumni should absolutely dismayed by their alma mater’s performance in the latest Wall Street Journal ranking — 51st!

Be not dismayed, fellow Wahoos. There are many reasons to criticize UVa, as I have repeatedly done on this blog. But this is not one of them. Indeed, conservative and libertarian Wahoos should wear this Wall Street Journal ranking, conducted in partnership with  London-based Times Higher Education, as a badge of pride — pride for what UVa has not yet become.

All rankings revolve around the choice of methodology. The WSJ/Times ranking reflect questionable values and priorities. As the ranking explains in its notes, researchers used 15  indicators that assess institutions on the basis of outcomes, resources, “engagement,” and “environment.”

Outcomes (with a 40% weight) include such conventional factors as the salaries that graduates earn and the debt they take on. Resources (30% weight) is a proxy for the resources put into instruction and student service.  Engagement (20%), drawn mostly from student surveys, “examines views on things like teaching and interaction with faculty and other students.” And environment (10%) reflects the “diversity” of the university community.

UVa ranks broken down by category:

Outcome: 24
Resources: 192
Engagement: 304
Environment: 476

Apparently, UVa scored poorly on the survey (the methodology for which was not explained), which asked if students felt they had made the right choice, were inspired by their environment, and the like.

The WSJ/Times ranking highlights Brown University as an example of an institution with high “engagement.” What’s the secret?

Provost Richard Locke attributes the school’s high mark for engagement to the fact that students don’t have specific courses they’re required to take. “You only have students in your class who want to be there,” he says, which changes the tenor of classroom conversations.

Brown also encourages hands-on learning through its Engaged Scholars Program, with courses on the anthropology of homelessness bringing students to social-service agencies, for example, or urban-studies students learning about the tactics of community organizers.

No required courses? Anthropology of homelessness? Is it a good thing or bad thing that UVa doesn’t match such an approach? You be your own judge.

As for “diversity,” it’s true that UVa is less racially/ethnically diverse than other institutions — despite strenuous efforts to recruit African-Americans and Hispanics. But assigning that criteria a 10% weight in determining the “Top Colleges” is a raw political statement.

The metric that irritates me most is academic spending per student. UVa spends $22,690 per student, which looks pretty stingy compared to say, $117,990 at Yale. First, there’s a presumption that more spending is better. Second, the metric says nothing about how that money is spent. How much of that spending, for instance, supports expensive R&D programs or pays fat salaries for full professors who do little teaching, benefiting undergraduates not at all? Third, does it occur to anyone that Yale’s spending of $180,000 per student is positively obscene?

When I see what other colleges and universities are doing, I realize that things could be worse. UVa is a mess. But all things are relative. Mr. Jefferson’s University still has a long way to fall.

More Bureaucracy Won’t Help Virginia Schools

Source: Cranky’s Blog. The gold square represents the City of Richmond; the red squares represent peer districts in Norfolk, Hampton and Newport News.

Among the most dismal of the Standards of Learning (SOL) results released last week by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) was that only 72% of 3rd graders had achieved reading proficiency — down 3% from the previous year ans 12% from a decade previously.

The usual suspects will respond to the news with the usual nostrums. Those on the left predictably will say that Virginia needs more money to (take your pick) hire teachers, pay teachers more, hire more counselors, or build newer, shinier school buildings. As an antidote to such thinking, contemplate the scatter graph above compiled by John Butcher on Cranky’s Blog.

In previous posts, Butcher has documented that there is very little correlation between per pupil expenditure and SOL achievement. In today’s post, he explores variations on the same theme, showing that there is minimal correlation on a school-district level between between the teacher-pupil ratio and SOL achievement in either reading or math.

In other scatter graphs, Butcher shows that there is even less correlation — essentially zero — between school size and reading/math SOL proficiency.

From the right side of the philosophical spectrum, as a Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial opines, come calls for more charter schools, more magnet programs, and more publicly and privately funded vouchers. While such alternatives may be appealing as a long-term solution, one has to be realistic that politically they are a non-starter in a state run by a Democratic Party governor and a legislature that likely will turn blue as well. Conservatives and libertarians should continue fighting for school choice, but in the meantime they need to proffer serious analysis of what ails public schools and what can be done to fix them — or at least not make them worse.

If the problem isn’t money, or teacher-pupil ratios, or school size, what is it? I think I’m getting closer to some answers. Let me sketch out my thinking at this point in time.

What really ails Virginia schools. Virginia’s public education system combines a toxic mix of three elements that interact in terribly dysfunctional ways: (1) the sociological reality of a large and growing population of children raised in material poverty, absentee fathers, substance abuse, child abuse and neglect, and other dysfunctions; (2) the spread of politically correct doctrine, manifested most recently in the imposition of “restorative justice” as a means of achieving school discipline; and (3) a push for accountability metrics, of which the SOLs are only one, that pressure school districts, principals, and teachers to game the system in order to show progress where none exists.

This combination is especially poisonous at schools with concentrated poverty. A number of things are going on. Schools are under pressure to reduce the rising rate of absenteeism — both the problem of students skipping school and the problem, among students who do come to school, of skipping class. The educrats seem to understand that it is a farce to claim that high school graduation rates are declining even while absenteeism is increasing. They also understand that students won’t learn (and pass their SOLs) if they don’t enter a classroom.

But the absenteeism-reduction imperative conflicts with the restorative-justice imperative. When kids skip school, there’s usually a reason — they’re bored and/or frustrated.  They are bored and/or frustrated because they don’t understand the material, can’t participate meaningfully in class, and feel set up to fail. They feel all those things because they have been socially promoted to grades beyond their competence, a phenomenon that is itself the product of politically correct thinking.

So, Virginia schools now have more bored/frustrated kids sitting in classrooms. Some just tune out. But others act out, disrupting class. Here’s where the restorative justice approach to school discipline comes in. Schools subject to federal court order to reduce expulsions, suspensions, and other sanctions on the grounds that they disproportionately impact minorities typically have substituted a therapeutic approach. In Henrico County, I understand, teachers are first called upon to “de-escalate” a disruptive situation. If that doesn’t work, teachers are supposed to take the student into the hall and reason with them. If a student must be removed from class, the time can be 20 minutes, no longer. Following these steps consumes a significant percentage of the teacher’s time. (My source estimates that he spends about 25% of his class time dealing with disruptive students, more than ever.) The result is that teachers have less time to teach the majority of students who do want to learn and are willing to behave comport themselves properly…. which leads to lower SOL scores. Of course, as I have frequently observed, the victims of disruptive students are disproportionately minorities themselves.

Can things get worse? Yes, they can. This school year the VDOE is rolling out a new set of accreditation standards, which include a host of new performance processes and metrics. While the goal of establishing objective measures for holding schools accountable is laudable in the abstract, the new processes could mire schools in even more red tape, lead to more gamesmanship and data manipulation, empower those who figure out how to work the new rules and demoralize those who don’t. When placed in impossible situations, teachers, principals and school officials could be even more tempted to engage in ass-covering behavior to avoid sanctions that could hurt their careers. Virginia schools could plunge even deeper into self-deception and denial. That’s not a prediction, just a possible outcome — but one we should be alert to.

Consider yourself forewarned. More bureaucratic rules are rarely the answer to any complex problem.

Do Chief Diversity Officers Make a Difference?

By 2016 about 65% of all institutions of higher education had created an executive-level position to promote ethnic and racial diversity on campus. Baylor University professor Steven W. Bradley and three colleagues at other institutions wondered what effect such offices had on the hiring of minority professors. After assembling data on graduate degree-granting institutions with 4,000 students or more, they concluded that the presence of chief diversity officers (CDOs) made no difference at all.

“We are unable to find significant statistical evidence that the preexisting growth in diversity for underrepresented racial/ethnic minority groups is affected by the hiring of an executive level diversity officer for new tenure and non-tenure track hires, faculty hired with tenure, or for university administrator hires,” they conclude in a newly published paper, “The Impact of Chief Diversity Officers on Diverse Faculty Hiring.”

Indeed, as can be seen in the graphs above (though not emphasized by the authors), institutions with CDOs have consistently employed fewer minority faculty and staff, and the gap has gotten slightly wider since 2000.

The paper did not study the impact of CDOs on the recruitment of minority students and graduate students, nor the effect on creating a more hospitable environment for minorities. But in light of the findings, those would seem to be appropriate topics for follow-up study.

Bradley and his fellow researchers attributed at least some of the inability to budge the numbers for minority faculty to the small pipeline of minority Ph.D.-level candidates and to the fact that a large percentage of minority Ph.D.s take jobs outside of academe. Creating a diversity bureaucracy cannot change those intractable realities.

Bacon’s bottom line: I would like to know not only whether a given university has a CDO but how big the CDO staff is and how much money the university spends on CDO offices. To what extent have diversity expenditures driven up the cost of providing a college education? What impact has the growth of diversity bureaucracies had on tuition levels? And, by extension, what impact has funding the growth of diversity bureaucracies added to the cost attendance for minorities — especially poor minorities? Is it possible that CDOs are actually counter-productive to the interest of minority students? Heresy, I know, but it’s a question worth asking.

A fallback defense of CDOs is that at the very least CDOs they help create a more hospitable environment for minorities. But I’d like to see proof for that. One could argue that the continual harping on the theme of minorities as victims of insensitivity and discrimination has the opposite effect intended — minorities, especially African-Americans, wind up feeling more alienated, not more welcome, and they are more likely to self-segregate in self-defense. Which institution do African-American kids says is more “inclusive” — a place like Liberty University, a campus lacking a conventional CDO but where the student body is 11% black, or a place like University of Virginia, which makes a fetish of diversity and inclusion and where 9% of undergraduates are black?

I doubt many university boards are interested in the answers. Hiring chief diversity officers is more about virtue signaling than getting results.

(Hat tip: John Butcher)

Gilder Guts Higher Ed

George Gilder. Photo credit: Wall Street Journal-

No wonder conservatives and libertarian voters are getting increasingly jaundiced about higher education. They’re reading more and more devastating take-downs of America’s colleges and universities like those expressed by author George Gilder in an interview by Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal. I quote liberally to make sure readers get the full effect.

As we talk of capitalism and America’s universities, Mr. Gilder sits upright, unable to mask his indignation. “The point is that we didn’t want manufacturing in this country, and we suppressed it. All of our colleges are devoted to stopping things rather than starting them.” The “whole focus” of science in American higher education, he says, is on “the dangers and perils of technology rather than its promise.”

America’s university system, says Mr. Gilder, is “incredibly corrupt and ideological.” How did it come to be like that? Surely, I observe, it wasn’t that way when he graduated from Harvard in 1962. “It was beginning to get that way,” he says, and he revs his engines for a fresh sortie. “The rise of affluence through the 1960s created this kind of amazing irresponsibility that resulted in a whole generation losing track of reality.”

The pithy apercu is Mr. Gilder’s forte. He tells me here that “human beings have a propensity to believe in leftism — in the idea that government can “answer all of their problems, guarantee the future, and relieve them of the challenges of life.” The idea of a “completely providential government” arose in America, and a “whole generation of young people were given college loans in a fabulous national mistake, in which the Republicans participated.” These loans were used by the university system to “increase perks and tenured luxuries” — all of which led to the “diversity campaigns and CO2 panics” that currently dominate university faculties.

The only way to undo this “vast blunder,” says Mr. Gilder, is to forgive student loans across the board and “extract the money from all the college endowments and funds that were used to just create useless departments and political campaigns.” More than $1.5 trillion in student loan money is outstanding, according to the Federal Reserve. That money, Mr. Gilder says, “wasn’t deployed to improve education. Not a scintilla of evidence has been adduced that learning has been improved. It was used entirely to lavish on bureaucracies that, in turn, paid tribute to government and leftist socialism.”

The impact of these loans, and of the academic ecosystem they engendered, has been catastrophic, in Mr. Gilder’s view. “The result was to destroy the entrepreneurial optimism of a whole generation of young people, to drive them toward socialism, which they now tend to favor, and even dissuade them from marriage.” The last is a consequence of debt, “which cripples them for the future.”

Gilder’s critique is hyperbolic at times — more accurately describing elite institutions than community colleges and land-grant universities — but it captures the way in which many institutions use tuition, fees, room and board to soak the booboisie, whose values they often ridicule, and extract wealth by means of student loans from the poor and minorities, whose well being they supposedly espouse. Talk about privilege!

At some point the middle class will revolt against higher ed. At some point. Right now, there are few signs of declining enrollment at at small, less prestigious liberal arts institutions that have priced themselves out of the market. But the more people listen to intellectuals like Gilder, the sooner the day of reckoning will come.

Higher Ed’s Hidden Influence: Alumni Legislators

Fund-raising tip for public colleges and universities: Get more of your alumni elected to the General Assembly. Across the country, a higher number of graduates of public colleges and universities is associated with higher funding for a state’s public higher-ed system, finds a new study, “School Spirit: Legislator School Ties and State Funding for Higher Education.

“One additional legislator who attended the state’s public college or university is associated with a 0.5% increase in the total state funding for that state’s total higher education system, holding all else constant,” write Aaron K. Chatterji, Joowan Kim, and Ryan C. McDevitt in a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

For an average state, an elected representative is associated with an additional $4.9 million in annual state funding. For a specific institution, election of an alumnus is associated with $49 million increase in funding.

By the tenets of conventional political analysis, higher ed would be a weak player in the political system. In Virginia, public universities don’t organize political action committees, and they don’t raise money for political candidates. In marked contrast to real estate/construction, financial services, health care, law, energy, and other money powerhouses, higher ed does not even warrant a breakout listing in the Virginia Public Access Project data base of major campaign donors. Over the past 20 years, “professors/staff” of public colleges (a category that includes university foundations) have donated only $4.3 million to Virginia political campaigns (overwhelmingly to Democrats).

But public universities do tap alumni to advocate on their behalf. And, as it turns out, among the most effective of those alumni are state legislators, according to the Chatterji et al study.

One might suggest that the authors of the study developed a data set of 96,000 legislators for the years 2002 through 2014 and ran a complex statistical analysis to document the obvious. But what might seem “obvious” isn’t always true. And the magnitude of the effect is not always evident. It is clear from Chatterji et al’s data that on average the effect is significant.

What may be true on average across the 50 states, however, is not necessarily the case here in Virginia. Average numbers can conceal considerable variability. So, consider the study as an indicator of what might be the case in the Old Dominion, pointing the way for follow-up research.

I knocked out some quick numbers this morning, inspecting the biographies of Virginia’s 100 House of Delegates representatives to see which institutions of higher education they attended, if any. Not all of our delegates attended college. Eleven, by my count, attended community college but did not pursue advanced degrees. Many attended private colleges, often out of state, who are not included in the numbers. But 46 have undergraduate degrees from Virginia public colleges and 16 (often overlapping with those with undergrad degrees) have graduate degrees from public Virginia institutions.

Without question, Virginia’s public institutions of higher education have an extensive alumni network to tap when pushing for legislation. To what degree do old-school loyalties affect delegates’ decisions? Do graduates of in-state institutions vote any differently from grads of out-of-state colleges and universities? That question will take extensive additional investigation to answer.

Virginians Like their Colleges, But…

A broad majority of Virginians — 80% — believe that the state’s community colleges are “worth the cost,” according to a poll recently published by the Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Sixty-six percent answered that four-year public colleges are worth the cost. But a bare plurality — 49% compared to 48% who disagreed — responded that private four-year colleges and universities were worth the money.

Ironically, community colleges are experiencing the worst erosion in enrollment of the three categories of higher education as prospective students decide they would rather take jobs in a booming economy than undergo training to get jobs.

In a double irony, Virginians who made the most money (more than $100,000) and had the highest level of education (a college degree) were significantly more likely to believe that community colleges were worth the money than Virginians with high school educations or less, or those making less than $50,000.

The poll, a random sample of 802 adults in Virginia conducted by landline and cell telephone from July 10-30, has a margin of error of 3.49 percentage points.

An implication of the poll is that Virginians are attuned to the cost of higher education. Consumers look most favorably upon community college, the least expensive of the three categories. Most also look favorably upon public colleges and universities, which are heavily subsidized by the state, though by a smaller margin. Virginians are most likely to be skeptical of the value proposition offered by private colleges, where the cost of attendance is highest on average (although most institutions discount tuition based on financial need).

Another implication of the poll is that private four-year colleges, most of which are liberal arts institutions, have a significant image problem to overcome. A quarter of Virginians (24%) responded that they “strongly disagree” with the proposition that private four-year colleges are worth the cost, while another quarter (24%) somewhat disagreed. Shrinking enrollment is threatening the viability of many small, liberal arts institutions. A hypothesis worth testing is that a significant share of the higher-ed market is shifting from higher-cost private colleges to lower-cost public colleges — thus throwing a lifeline to public colleges which otherwise might have been pricing themselves out of the market.

Finally, it is worth noting that among all the demographic variables collected by the pollsters — including age, employment status, race, education level, and geographic region — the most telling was party affiliation. While 79% of Democrats said that colleges and universities in Virginia are “doing a good job” in providing workforce skills, only 58% of Republicans and 51% of independents believed the same. Conversely, 40% of Republicans thought they were “doing a bad job,” while only 15% of Democrats believed the same.

In future polling, the Wilder School might explore this divide. Has the perception of politically correct thinking and ideological hostility to conservatives in higher ed soured Republicans on higher education generally? Has the animus generated by the campus culture wars spilled over to Republicans’ appraisals of the value of higher education? One would think that administrators would want to know whether or not they are alienating a third of their potential market.