More Public Input Coming for College Tuition Hikes

VCU students protest tuition hikes and adjunct pay last year. Photo credit; WCVE.

Before voting on tuition increases, board members of Virginia universities will have to listen to public input from students and families, if Governor Ralph Northam signs a bill passed by the General Assembly.

SB 1118 sponsored by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, with a companion bill sponsored by Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, would “require governing board[s] of each public institution of higher education, prior to a vote on an increase in undergraduate tuition or mandatory fees, to permit public comment on the proposed increase at a meeting of the governing board.”

The prevailing practice is for tuition proposals to work their way through financial committees and then get voted on by the full board of trustees with relatively little discussion. Board of visitors members are wined and dined by university presidents, and they rarely rock the boat. Administrators spoon-feed them information, and conflicting views are rarely heard. Unlike corporate board members who own stock in the company they govern, university board members have no financial skin in the game. Many are alumni whose main concern is enhancing the prestige of the alma mater they love.

Bob Holsworth, a rare dissenting voice on the Virginia Commonwealth University board of trustees , described board members as living in a bubble only receiving information and input from administrators, reports WCVE public radio. “What Chap Petersen’s bill does is that it reminds board members that we’re simply not there only for the purpose of advancing the university, but we’re also there to think about students and the needs of the commonwealth as well,” he said.

There are many reasons for the soaring cost of college. State financial assistance has not kept pace with inflation and enrollment growth. Administrative overhead has expanded exponentially, and highly compensated tenured faculty enjoy lighter teaching loads. Institutions have spent money on expensive upgrades to buildings and amenities in a bid to attract students. Research universities have steered funds into expensive STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines that attract outside research dollars and enhance university prestige. And generous federal loan programs make it easier for students to pay their ever-escalating bills. Universities have many stakeholders in the budgeting process, but the people paying tuition constitute a weak constituency with virtually no input into the decision-making process.

Giving a voice to the voiceless would expose university board members to the human impact of their tuition hikes. Bill backers hope that hearing stories of hardship might embolden board members to push back against administrators whose primary interest is in building institutional prestige.

That would represent a positive step forward, although it would hardly be decisive. Real reform of higher education won’t come until there is a clear understanding of the driving forces behind higher attendance costs — not just tuition but student fees, room, board, and textbooks — and the Byzantine accounting systems which makes it difficult to know who is subsidizing and cross-subsidizing what within an institution.

The ultimate problem is that there is no clear bottom line for public universities. As nonprofits, they are not profit-maximizing institutions. Instead, they are prestige-maximizing institutions competing against peers in a never-ending quest for status, recognition and rankings. Containing costs is a secondary concern. But the battle against runaway tuition and fees has got to begin somewhere, and providing public input is a good place to start.

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8 responses to “More Public Input Coming for College Tuition Hikes

  1. Chap Petersen is one of (the few) good guys in the General Assembly notwithstanding his bizarre defense of Virginia’s one term governor. Bob Holsworth is unimpeachable in both the depth of his knowledge and the fairness and logic of his opinions.

    Having said all that ….

    This seems like a bit of virtue signaling to me.

    What do we expect the public reaction to tuition hikes will be? Applause? The students and parents will huff and puff. They will protest. Then, they will go away and the tuition will be hiked. Rinse and repeat next year. Holsworth’s point about the insularity of board members might lend some additional credence to this law. It’s hard to believe the board members are so dissociated from the institutions they claim to manage but Bob would know better than just about anybody.

    The real culprit, as usual, is the General Assembly. These public colleges and universities are public property. It ought to be mandatory that one sitting member of the General Assembly have a seat on each and every public college and university board. This is far too small a representation to “politicize” the board but it would get an elected official in the mix to (hopefully) represent the voters and taxpayers of Virginia. The General Assembly also has it completely within its power to demand transparent reporting from the public colleges and universities.

  2. I think this may have a good effect. It is worth trying. The idea of putting individual members of the Assembly on these boards is a non-starter for me.

    Holsworth’s observation strikes a chord with my own experience on SCHEV. Lovely folks, all of them, but my low six figure income left me a pauper in the midst of princes. Too many were clueless about the financial stress this is creating on Real People. I loved the moment when one of them said, why $30K in debt is nothing, that’s just a car! Plenty of people have never and will never own a $30,000 car…..

    Of course what will happen is the college’s PR department will add another lobbyist or a grassroots organizer to pack the comment period and public hearing with positive, suck-up feedback. Ka-Ching $$.

  3. I think you’d have to change the way folks are appointed to the BOV.

    Right now – it’s not really targetted to appoint folks concerned about costs or who have the expertise or capability to find out themselves beyond what the administrations would provide.

    Beyond that – it’s truly an “industry-wide” problem. It’s not like one or two schools are egregiously out of step with others – it’s that virtually all schools have this issue and what exactly would you really expect of out any one BOV who would be basically looking at their school compared to others? What would you expect them to do?

    This would be akin to appointing a citizens group to look at a particular hospitals costs and to advocate lowering those costs – when all hospitals have the same issue.

    It’s a frustration with folks but I don’t think this really accomplishing much…

    Perhaps what is needed is an SCC type approach that holds ALL schools accountable ! And then we’d have those schools donating to the GA to influence them to be on their side like they do with Dominion! 😉

  4. re: ” Bob Holsworth, a rare dissenting voice on the Virginia Commonwealth University board of trustees , described board members as living in a bubble only receiving information and input from administrators, reports WCVE public radio. “What Chap Petersen’s bill does is that it reminds board members that we’re simply not there only for the purpose of advancing the university, but we’re also there to think about students and the needs of the commonwealth as well,” he said.

    There’s at least one more:

    “Mary Washington approves 8 percent increase in tuition, fees
    BY LINDLEY ESTES/THE FREE LANCE-STAR May 8, 2015 ”

    you may recognize the guy below:

    ” Board member Edd Houck voted against the tuition increase and budget.

    “My vote is not reflective in my degree of support of [the administration] and what they are trying to do,” he said. “We are on a trajectory we cannot maintain. We are relying on tuition and fees to foot the bill for what this fine university is. In doing this . . . we turn our back on the common good. That’s what this university and every public university is about . . . the common of good educating people to better themselves and earn more. I think turning our back on them [students] is fundamentally wrong.”

  5. I think the colleges do this because they can. By that I mean as long as the students can get loans, the prices will keep going up. This sets up the students for life long debt that affects everything else in their lives.

  6. I read a few years ago that there was a movement to enact a law in Virginia that would require police to be more transparent with their records. Looks like it didn’t go anywhere.

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