Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

Koch’s Recipe for Reforming Higher-Ed

James V. Koch’s indictment of the U.S. higher education system can be summarized as follows: The cost of attending four-year public universities has soared in recent decades, creating an affordability crisis. Lower- and middle-income students and their families have coped by piling up massive student loans to the point where indebtedness has become a major social and economic problem. Higher-ed institutions, especially those with brand names and pricing power, have extracted wealth from its students to fund institutional priorities of bolstering prestige and influence.

The underlying problem, Koch suggests in his recently published book, “The Improverishment of the American College Student,” can be traced to an asymmetry in political and market power.

Undergraduate students come and go. They and their families usually focus intently on college costs for a period of one to six years. After this, their attention dissipates. There is no permanent constituency of interested parties or victims. … Hence it is difficult to organize student or parent pressure groups that might address tuition and fee issues…

By contrast, the institutional interests of colleges, universities, and their bureaucracies endure. Boards of Visitors, set up to provide oversight of ambitious administrators, are routinely captured and dominated by university presidents. Board members adopt the goals and priorities of the administration rather than those of largely invisible students and families. Continue reading

Going Nowhere Fast: Virginia’s Transportation Dialogue

Northern Virginians are complaining again about their inadequate transportation infrastructure, and I can’t blame them. Traffic is terrible, especially on transportation arteries like Interstate 95, and I avoid going up there, or even through there, if I possibly can. NoVa is transportation hell — a point that was reiterated Wednesday during a forum sponsored by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. As usually happens, however, participants defined the problem as not enough money.

“We are in the position (where) we don’t have more money,” said panelist Monica Backmon, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, according to Inside Nova. “We have an open call for projects right now, but the reality is that’s for Fiscal Year 24 and 25. If you need more money on previously funded projects, I really don’t have it.”

Where will the money come from? Ed Mortimer, a U.S. Chamber official, said the federal government needs to do more. Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine argued that Virginia is relatively undertaxed and should boost its gas tax.

Given the paralyzing political polarization in Washington, D.C., these days, I don’t expect any solutions coming out of the nation’s capital. But Richmond hasn’t reached the same level of dysfunction. What about a higher gas tax? Does that idea make sense? Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Mostly Good News for a Change

Energy efficiency done right. After investing $2 million over three years to update the energy and water infrastructure of Clark Hall, the University of Virginia calculates that it is saving $75o,ooo a year in electricity bills and $22,000 in water bills — a payback in less than three years. The university replaced 5,000 interior and exterior fixtures with LEDs, put into place an electronically controlled HVAC system, and installed low-flow toilets and faucet aerators, among other changes. Since 2010, Office of Sustainability projects have avoided $35 million in energy fees, reports the Cavalier Daily. Building automation kills two birds with one stone: It dampens runaway higher-ed costs, and it reduces energy consumption.

Wytheville as winner. The Brookings Institution has highlighted Wytheville, population 8,000, as a successful example of community development in a rural town. Step one: Invest in downtown place-making through streetscape renovations, improved sidewalks, lighting, and crosswalks. Step two: Create a self-sustaining entrepreneurial ecosystem. With a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Urban Development, Downtown Wytheville launched a competition to recruit local businesses and build partnerships with property owners. Inducements such as reduced rent, mentorships, and $75,000 in prize money were used to recruit the businesses downtown. As a result Wytheville has two (not one, but two) breweries, a Vietnamese bakery, and an art school id didn’t have before. In 2018, downtown received $800,000 in public investment and $5.7 in private investment. Continue reading

VCU Study Jumps to Unsubstantiated Conclusions

Richmond-area schools suspend black students at four times the rate of white students, a gap that exceeds the national average, a study by the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education has found. The findings have been duly reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

One in five black students in the region received an out-of-school suspension during the 2015-16 year compared to 5% of white students. Nationally, the numbers are closer to 15% and 5%, according to a study by the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (MERC), a research arm of the VCU educational school that gives special emphasis to “social justice, equity and diversity.”

“This is a long-standing problem with deeply rooted causes, and it’s going to take dedicated leadership and policy to resolve it,” the RTD quoted Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a VCU education professor and one of the study’s authors, as saying.

To drive home the point, the RTD also quoted Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras: “We have a moral obligation to end racial inequity in school discipline — particularly here in the Richmond region given our history as the former capital of the Confederacy. Continue reading

Tuition Stable but College Costs Still Up

Increase in tuition & Fees for full-time in-state undergraduate students in 2019-20. Source: SCHEV

Thanks to an increase in state support, Virginia’s four-year colleges and universities held tuition mandatory E&G (education and general) fees stable this year for in-state undergraduates. However, according to the latest Tuition & Fees report from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the total cost of attendance including room, board, and fees for auxiliary services will increase 2.2% for the 2019-2020 academic year.

Drivers of the cost increases are a 3.5% increase in the cost of room & board, accounting for about 44% of the total cost of attendance, and a 4.1% increase in mandatory non-E&G fees. It’s hard to see how those increases are justified, given the fact that the Consumer Price Index has increased only 1.6% over the past 12 months.

Did Virginia’s college administrators shift costs — perhaps in the form of administrative charges and overhead — to those line items so they can say they held the line on tuition and mandatory fees? Perhaps SCHEV could look into that question.

Raising All the Money They Can, and Spending All the Money They Raise

There are two broad theories explaining why the cost of higher education has increased at roughly four times the rate of inflation over the past two decades. One is the Baumol cost-disease hypothesis. Economist William J. Baumol used the example of a chamber orchestra to explain why it is so difficult to increase productivity in the service economy. It takes the same number of musicians and same length of time to perform a Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor as it did in 1826. By analogy, the job of transmitting higher-order knowledge from teacher to student is as labor intensive as it was a half century ago. Yet to recruit and retain faculty, colleges must pay their professors far more.

Howard Bowen. His “law” explains about half of all increases in higher-ed tuition and fees.

The other theory, known as “Bowen’s Law,” was articulated by former college president Howard R. Bowen. He laid out five axioms:

  1. The dominant goals of institutions are excellent, prestige, and influence.
  2. There is virtually no limit to the amount of money that an institution could spend for seemingly fruitful educational ends.
  3. Each institution raises all the money it can.
  4. The institution spends all it raises.
  5. The cumulative effect of the proceeding four laws is toward ever-increasing expenditure.

Together, the two theorems explain about two-thirds of the increasing the cost of college attendance in the United States, says James V. Koch, author of “The Impoverishment of the American College Student.” While he gives credence to both theories, his research suggests that Bowen’s Law has twice the explanatory power as Baumol’s cost disease. Continue reading

WaPo Stokes Fear Campaign against Feral Hogs

The Washington Post is ramping up its hate campaign against wild pigs. Labeling the highly intelligent, highly social animals as an “invasive species,” the newspaper describes them as “marauding” across the southern United States,  “eviscerating crops, gobbling up sea turtles, and tramping archaeological sites in a rampage showing no signs of letting up.”

The newspaper invokes their Hispanic origins — “brought to North America from Europe by Spanish conquistadors” — and makes an issue of their high fertility rate: “They produce large litters.” Invoking harmful and negative stereotypes, the newspaper quotes an Arkansas Game & Fish Commissioner spokesman as saying that the animals leave a “trail of diseases and parasites.” And without citing any evidence that wild pigs have attacked humans, it warns, “Their razor sharp tusks combined with their lightning speed can cause serious injury.”

Describing feral hogs as a pest to be exterminated, WaPo writes approvingly of the use of camera-enabled traps, night hunts using infrared scopes, and “helicopter squads rifle-toting sportsmen.” It quotes a Texas wildlife official as suggesting that an AR-15-type firerarm may not pack enough punch to pierce the pig’s tough hide. “The best caliber rifles should be a .243 of greater to prevent wounding and loss of the animal.” Continue reading

Hey, Why Not Satellites for Rural Broadband Access?

Everyone can agree, I think, that broadband Internet service is an essential utility for Virginia’s rural areas. There appears to be a wide base of support for the commonwealth to expend modest sums of money to help extend broadband to rural Virginians where the population density is insufficient to attract fiber-optic and wireless investment by private telecom companies. But I do have one question: What’s wrong with satellite broadband?

My question is prompted by an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today by Evan Feinman and Courtney Dozier, the point persons in Governor Ralph Northam’s bid to expand rural broadband access. They describe programs that use public dollars to grease partnerships between localities, internet service providers, and electric utilities. Since the beginning of the Northam administration, they note, state-funded programs have helped establish 71,000 connections to homes and businesses. And that’s just the beginning of what they have planned. They are asking for tens of millions of dollars more.

That all sounds great. When it comes to rural economic development, investing in broadband may be the most effective way to spend public dollars. Still, what’s wrong with satellite technology? Continue reading

More Evidence of Excessive Tuition Increases

Click for more legible image

An enduring debate in higher education, especially here in Virginia, is the extent to which cuts in state support are responsible for skyrocketing tuition & fees at public universities. In his book, “The Impoverishment of the American College Student,” James V. Koch has tackled that question on a national basis, and in so doing has provided some interesting data on five Virginia universities.

For 20 flagship institutions, 20 urban institutions, and 20 “typical” institutions, Koch performed a series of calculations tracking changes between the 1999/00 school year and the 2014/15 school year:

  • The percent change in published tuition and fees (T&F) adjusted for inflation.
  • The percentage change in published net T&F — adjusted for inflation and financial aid — per full-time equivalent student.
  • The percentage change in state appropriations, adjusted for inflation, per full-time equivalent student.
  • The net change in revenue available to the institution resulting from changes in tuition, fees, financial aid, and state support.

Continue reading

UVa’s New Strategic Plan: Lofty Goals, New Programs… Mo’ Money

UVa’s new president, Jim Ryan, starts to leave his mark on the institution.

The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors has adopted a new strategic plan, The 2030 Plan — the first under the leadership of President Jim Ryan. If UVa achieves its goals, says Ryan in the introduction, “We will be the leading public university in the country in 2030 and one of the very best in the world, whether public or private.”

The 2030 Plan expresses many high-minded goals — among them, to recruit “talented, diverse and service-oriented” students; recruit and retain excellent faculty and administrative staff; prepare students to be “servant leaders” in a diverse, globally connected world; establish leadership in critical areas of research; and offer one of the best values in higher education.

The plan is devoid of details on how the university will attain these goals, but it appears that the board will be delegating much of its authority to Ryan and his staff. The Daily Progress notes that the board “will approve three-year funding plans at a strategic level” but leave “line-item allocations” up to senior officials. “Previously board members would have approved those expenditures as well.” Moreover, UVa’s administration will have the authority to adjust the funding plan by as much as $15 million without full board approval.

While illuminating institutional goals to boost UVa’s national standing as one of the nation’s great universities, the strategic plan is silent about an issue of vital interest to Virginians — affordability. Rather than emphasizing affordability, the strategic plan emphasizes “value”: Continue reading

National Mental Breakdown

The United States is having a mental breakdown. Two mass shootings in a single day is a sure sign that the polarization and viciousness of our politics is a reflection of a broader social sickness. Social cohesion is disintegrating. Mistrust is spreading. Rancorous rhetoric is displacing reasoned discourse. People are seeking refuge in tribal identities and wallowing in hate. Our national psyche is the most venomous it has been since the 1960s — the difference being that we don’t even have a massively unpopular war as an excuse for our divisions.

President Trump is part of the problem. The nation looks to its presidents to unite the country. Trump’s tweets are calculated to inflame his enemies and drive them to excess. And they succeed all too well. Democrats, shouting through their Mainstream Media bullhorn, depict Republicans and Trump supporters as bigots, racists, traitors, and xenophobes. Doubt me? Just watch MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” which feeds its million viewers every day with two hours of invective and bile.

The economy is booming and we’re engaged in no major foreign wars. Americans ought to be feeling good about themselves. But we’re miserable. People have advanced a variety of theories for our increasing division. Gerrymandering, some say, is creating safe districts for extremists in both parties. The fragmentation of media allows people to live in information echo chambers. Those play a role, but I think the malaise runs deeper. Society is atomizing. Civic society is in decline — more and more people are “bowling alone.” More people are feeling disconnected and alienated. The ties that bind us are dangerously fraying. Mental illness is endemic. Continue reading

Universities as Engines of Income Redistribution

The College of William & Mary: setting the standard for using tuition policy as an engine of income redistribution

An article in the Wall Street Journal today explains how middle-class American families are finding themselves swamped with debt. Consumer debt (not including mortgages) has climbed to $4 trillion, higher than it has ever been, even counting for inflation. The major sources of that debt: credit cards, car loans and… student loans, which now exceed $1.5 trillion.

Against this backdrop, the timing couldn’t be better for just-published book by James V. Koch, “The Impoverishment of the American College Student.” Steve Haner has written a broad overview of the book, but the volume contains such a wealth of research, much of which applies to Virginia higher-ed policy, that I feel compelled to go into greater detail.

The starting point of Koch’s work is that the cost of college attendance has been escalating far more rapidly than median American incomes. He acknowledges that there are many reasons why: administrative, bloat, mission creep, and lagging support from state governments, among others. In Chapter Five he examines a reason that gets little attention outside academic scholarship: how universities use tuition-setting as an engine of wealth redistribution from wealthy families to poorer families, and how they take a rake-off to fund their own priorities. Continue reading

More Blue on Blue: Terry McAuliffe’s White Privilege

Photo credit: WAMU

The radicalization of Virginia politics continues apace. Now former Governor Terry McAuliffe, nobody’s idea of a conservative, is getting the Joe Biden treatment — criticized by Leftists for his reactionary views, and getting respectful media treatment for it.

McAuliffe was plugging his new book at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., yesterday, when his book signing was disrupted by four residents of the People’s Republic of Charlottesville. In a 20-minute exchange that became heated at times, according to WAMU radio, the protesters took particular exception to McAuliffe’s defense of police actions during the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville two years ago and his promise to donate proceeds from the sales of his book to the Virginia State Police Association fund.

States WAMU: “At one point, a protester moved toward McAuliffe airing her concerns and then chanted, ‘Cops and the Klan go hand in hand.'”

“You’re using this book as a means to raise money for a contingent of people who contributed to terrorizing antiracist activists,” said Constance Paige Young, who said she was injured in the attack that killed Heather Heyer. “Please explain to me why you believe it’s appropriate to raise money for the very people who fail to keep us safe, and contributed to terrorizing us that day.” Continue reading

2018: Murders Fall, Assaults and Sex Crimes Nudge Higher


Virginia media gave scant attention to the publication of the 2018 Crime in Virginia report — perhaps because there were no dramatic headlines to be dredged from the statistics. The most encouraging news is that the murder rate declined measurably — from 5.37 murders per 100,000 population in 2017 to 4.59 murders in 2018 — thus continuing a reversal of a five-year upswing earlier in the decade.

The numbers for aggravated assault (assaults resulting in an injury) aren’t as reassuring. The rate per 100,000 nudged up to 120 in 2018 from 119 the previous year. Taking a longer-term perspective: After an encouraging decline in the late 2000s, the rate of aggravated assaults has leveled off, showing no improvement since 2011. In some ways this number is more meaningful than the murder rate — Virginians are about 25 times more likely to be assaulted than murdered. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Pipelines, Trucks, Express Lanes

Is natural gas supply a constraint to Roanoke’s growth? Without the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the Roanoke Gas Co. says it will be unable to reliably meet future demand or serve all of its customers on the coldest days of the year. Writes Chairman John Williamson in a State Corporation Commission filing: “Southwest Virginia has more than enough constraints on economic growth without its premier MWA flat-lined due to a lack of reliable and affordable energy supply. … MVP is critical to that adequate energy supply.” MVP critics say that Roanoke Gas, which has a tangential financial stake in the pipeline, has an adequate supply from existing pipelines. But Roanoke Gas officials insist that when they asked about additional capacity from the interstate pipelines, they were told none was available. The Roanoke Times lays explores the controversy here.

Keep on trucking. The Port of Virginia has completed a $320 million expansion of its container-loading capacity. With four new giant cranes and other improvements, it can handle three ultra-large container ships simultaneously. Port capacity has increased from about 2.7 million containers yearly to 4.4. million. But the growth in freight traffic is creating a new pain point: delays and prolonged turn-around times for trucks, reports the Virginian-Pilot. Unmentioned in the article is what impact rising truck traffic — four to five thousand trips daily when the port reaches full capacity — on the region’s transportation network. Continue reading