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.

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12 responses to “Distracting from the Big Issues at W&L”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    You left out the state tuition assistance grants (TAG) for every W&L student who is a Virginia resident – $3,270 for this term. I’m sure they factor that subsidy in when doing their net prices. If W&L has become another bastion of liberal progressive orthodoxy, you know the infection has reached the bone. Just because they are nodding in the direction of political correctness under pressure, the real earthquake will happen if and when they ever try to move that tomb. Don’t hold your breath.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: “bastions of liberal progressive orthodoxy”

    I can only imagine that virtually all higher ed today with a few notable exceptions falls well into this realm….

    And the wealthy – seem pretty much okay with sending their kids to these nests of leftists as well as shower them with Alumni dollars…

    All things equal on the tax credits – they are equal opportunity to wherever the donor want them to go – no one is forced to give anything to any College.

    And one would think that most of those who are wealthy – know that preserving their wealth – requires responsible, “conservative” thinking.

    So what is it about Conservatives who send their kids to Liberal Institutions and then heap additional Alumni dollars on those “bastions” of leftism?

    I know we hear all the time that Conservatives are sick of the liberal poop of Higher Ed and threaten to not send their kids there or contribute as Alumni – so perhaps it’s a slow migration away from them – and in a few years – those Liberal Institutions will be dying financially and the Conservative ones prospering mightily.

    And in a way I kinda hope so – cuz all this bellyaching… is monotonous as heck.

  3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I read recently from an authoritatively source that the parents of W&L students are among the very wealthiest in the nation by far. Few other colleges even come close to the wealth of W&I parents. And such it has always been over the past 100 years.

    Thus for example, back in the 1950s, 196960’s and 1970s, among the elite families, including the northern and southern elites, if your son graduating from an elite east coast private school did not have the grades and SATs to get into Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Williams, Duke, North Carolina or Virginia, well then he was very often headed for Washington & Lee.

    Indeed, if you otherwise had the right pedigree, in the 1960, your son could be often accepted for admission and asked to chose his room assignment, without his asking, during your first visit to the school to interview. This I know for a fact.

    Then things improved dramatically for W&L admissions wise.

    In the late 1980s or early 1990s, US News and World report listed W&L as the best “small college” for its cost in the nation.

    Suddenly, W&L got very snooty and vindictive in its selection process, turning down very highly qualified legacy kids from long time feeder prep schools just teach those feeder schools, and those legacy parents a very vindictive lesson, at the kids expense. This was an example of the frequent small mindedness of educator bureaucrats. It backfired big time in more that several cases.

    In any case, W&L has over the past decade as evidenced on this blog, has shown its incrediable double standard and hypocritical lack of respect for its past, its namesakes, and its loyally generations of those very people who built the school into what it is today, and who it still depends on, the hands that feed it.

    The cowardice of the W&L administration has been breathtaking, a cowardice and lack of integrity in direct inverse proportion to the courage and integrity of its namesakes, George Washington and Robert E. Lee.

    1. My brother graduated from W&L and I have to say I have been very impressed with the quality of the institution. The certainly seem to do things right.

      To Reed’s point, the big change in W&L started when they went coed. Within a short period of time, selectivity skyrocketed and they could devote their substantial resources to academic scholarships rather than just filling seats. The Johnson scholarships, which are roughly equivalent to UVA’s Jefferson scholarships are awarded to a full 10% or more of the entering class (vs. 1% or so for Jefferson scholarships). They receive full tuition, room and board at a minimum, and scholars also get $7,000 to support summer travel and internships. So they are spending a huge amount on merit scholarships.

      I agree with Jim that evaluating the tax status of super-rich schools like W&L is worth a discussion. A quick calculation says that W&L’s can generate about $37,500 per student per year from its endowment. This means it is already at the point where the endowment can fund an amount equivalent to private school tuition or full in-state cost at UVA.

      I also agree with Steve Haner’s comments. The alumni that are giving the big bucks are not going to be happy with a big change to names or the Lee Chapel.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Izzo –

        There is then in the other hand there is this:


        I stand by my statement in all its ugliness, without disputing yours.


        1. Steve Haner Avatar
          Steve Haner

          I lived in Lexington 1976-79 and it was fascinating to compare VMI and W&L, when I still had high school friends attending them. W&L had quite a cohort of middle class students, but I also saw the same thing Reed mentions – quite a few students from Serious Money who didn’t have the credentials for Ivy League (or UVA and W&M), just getting their ticket punched until they started work at Daddy’s company. I would agree the admission of women really changed the trajectory.

          1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd

            Interesting Steve that you mention this VMI / W&L contrast. It quite literally changed my life.

            I graduated from a military boarding school in Virginia. My father was a career Marine. One of his best friends was the retired Marine General George R. E.Shell. (They had been side by side when in Aug. of 1944, Shell, then a Lt. Colonel, had been blow up and all but killed on Saipan)

            In the fall of 1962, Gen. Shell was Superintendent of VMI. So my father drove me to Lexington where he and I had lunch with General Shell in his quarters before the Commander of Cadets gave me a private tour of VMI. This occurred on a Saturday morning.

            On our departure from VMI, my father made the fatal mistake of driving out of VMI’s front gate and then past the row of W&L frat. houses on the left hand side of the road with its hung over and/or still drunken Frat. boys with beer, handing out the windows.

            “What’s this place here,” I asked my father.

            He looked over at me and smiled. I will never forget that knowing smile of my father. He and General Shell were great men.

          2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd

            Correction – that artillery piece or mortar hit Shell in June, likely on the 15th or 16th, of 1944 on the Japanese stronghold of Saipan.

  4. Reed,

    Thanks for the link. I was unaware of this case.

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Took my son to visit VMI, Reed, (my uncle went there on a Governor’s appointment), and just as we stood in the Jackson Arch he was treated to the show as some poor rat got hassled and made to do a bunch of push-ups during a verbal barrage. That tore it for him – and he discovered that ROTC at UVA meant wearing the uniform one day a week…..

    Had a chance to interview Mike Irby about his experiences with the First Cav during Tet. Also spent some time with Sy Bunting. That school has had some impressive leaders, great American soldiers.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I have enormous respect for Sy Bunting. What an incredible guy he is too. Another guy who really impacted kids in the best way imaginable.

  6. W&L and VMI don’t get too much attention on this blog, probably justly because of their small size, but they are unique institutions with extremely loyal alumni, some of whom have done impressive things.

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