The Low Hanging Fruit of Higher Ed

Six-Year Outcomes for Students Who Started at Four-Year Public Institutions, by Origin State. Source: State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV)
Six-Year Outcomes for Students Who Started at Four-Year Public Institutions, by Origin State. Source: State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV)

There are two ways to increase the percentage of Virginians earning a college degree. One is to expand enrollment, push more students through the system and hope for the best. The other is to make sure that a higher percentage of students entering the system actually complete their degree requirements. For all the flaws of Virginia’s system of higher education, shepherding students through to the completion of their degree is something that Virginia colleges do exceptionally well.

Todd Massa is the person who thinks about this (or, perhaps, I should say he blogs about it) the most. “As I point out endlessly,” he blogged recently, “every two years, enrollment projections consist of new students plus continuing students. If year-to-year retention increases, total enrollment can increase while the numbers of new students is held constant.”

Putting a focus on degree completion rather than enrollment has two immense benefits. First, the state gets more bang for the buck — more college grads per dollar expended. It’s cheaper to help a marginal student complete his or her degree, I would argue, than to add capacity for a new student. Second, it’s better for the students. Attending college, amassing student debt and failing to earn the educational credential is not a good way for a young person to launch a career.

As the state with the third highest six-year completion rate in the country, Virginia might not seem to have much room for improvement. But I would argue the contrary. Taking six years to earn a four-year degree is nothing to brag about. There’s still lots of slack in the system. We can and should do better — both for the benefit of students and the benefit of taxpayers who support a system of higher education that is building capacity to accommodate the enrollment of more students.

In the context of my previous blog post, “The Southern Migration of Educated Workers,” Virginia should aim to raise the percentage of home-educated workers with college workers within current fiscal constraints, not by spending more money. That’s not necessarily what Massa is saying, but it is the conclusion I draw from his analysis. In other words, it’s entirely possible to do more with less.


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16 responses to “The Low Hanging Fruit of Higher Ed”

  1. larryg Avatar

    my first thought in looking at it was to wonder if the lower ranked have tougher curriculum and grading.

    why would I be wrong in thinking that?

    recently in Va – some schools are talking about not requiring the SAT for entrance and instead using the high school GPA. that seems like a recipe for more high school grade creep to me.

    they’re going after smaller and smaller pools of potential enrollees and as Sweet Brier showed us (apparently) a shortfall of only 50 in 700 can push the finances into the red.

    At the time that Europe and Japan are emphasizing a focus and rigor for core academics – we are coming apart .. and I fear we’re NOT generating high quality college grads capable of competing of 21st century tech jobs -any more. Look at the surnames of the technology company leaders these days.

  2. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    I’d be interested to see how people react to this idea…

    I know an engineering prof at VT. He complains about trying to get kids through in 4 years and how it’s extremely difficult. He also points out that it’s a crock to say “VT is big” as an excuse (look at VT’s peers in other states).

    His belief is that the state should drop William and Mary and invest those resources in Tech.

    His reasoning: Virginia Tech fulfills the role of the state’s land grant/ag/engineering/research-heavy “big school.” U.Va. is the “flagship” with the state’s best professional schools and a lot of good grad programs as well as its own huge research budget.

    But…find another “state” school like William and Mary in the nation. It’s tiny (6300 undergrads v. 15000 at U.Va. and 23000 at VPI) and attracts very few research dollars. In other words, the state is funding a small, elite liberal arts school. No other state in the union does that.

    His idea is to let William and Mary privatize and take those state dollars, not to increase enrollment, but to invest in making Virginia Tech a much more manageable 4 year school.

    I don’t really know the numbers, but his idea is interesting. Of course, with the politics involved, it has very little chance of happening.

    1. The interesting germ of your VT prof’s idea is that the state should consider restructuring its higher ed portfolio. W&M could easily go it alone as a private liberal arts university on a par with Washington & Lee. The money could be reallocated. But your friend is dreaming if he thinks that VT would get hold of all the money!

      1. Cville Resident Avatar
        Cville Resident

        I agree with you. I don’t think the dollars would all flow to Virginia Tech…even though that might make sense.

        I still have never heard a justification of why Virginia is funding William and Mary in the 21st century. I think you nail it: it’s really a publicly funded Washington and Lee. It needs to double in size or it doesn’t make sense as a “state” school.

    2. This data reflect that Virginia’s higher is slightly more affordable then some states; but this is moving target andvery threatened median household income stagnates.

      A statewide Board of Regents is useful for addressing allocation of resources to state institutions, rather than each state school operating with its own silo Board of Visitors. For years, I’ve been saying that UVA should have relinquished its Engineering School chase and allowed the Commonwealth devote those resources to Tech. Aspiring to rival Tech’s Engineering program has wasted $ and has yet to produce a program that matches Tech. The economy of scale provided to Tech would snowball. Tech could send some of its liberal arts resources to Charlottesville.

      There are limits to this kind of centralization, medical schools for example. There is sufficient demand for these programs which are scattered across the state for EVMS, VCU, UVA to thrive.

      1. larryg Avatar

        I think we should change the whole way we go about higher education.

        I think the State should fund Community Colleges for any child that gets a B or better in school.

        and that they offer automatic transfer to the 4yr institutions with generous loan terms.. for those that need it.

        I think that those who want to go to 4yr institutions go on their own dime unless they enroll in areas cited as needed in the economy.

        In other words -we emphasize and incentivize – jobs not just “education” and certainly not education for those who want to follow their dream – do that on your own dime – please.

        there is zero justification in spending tax dollars for people to seek their own goals. I think it’s admirable that they do – but where is the justification for tax dollars?

        we’ve perverted higher ed – in multiple ways – big time sports is an obvious example but we also encourage people to basically screw around getting generic degrees that largely have little or no direct need in commerce.

        A 2yr degree is justified for tax dollars – it really is just an extension of high school these days – but 4yr college is a racket and a “tradition” for our society – but if it’s not going to yield a taxpayer or worse – it’s going to yield someone who owes 30-40 thousand dollars of loans – and no real viable job path – then we need to be rethinking what we are doing and why.

        we’ve screwed up higher Ed.. we’ve perverted it into some kind of a “benefit” for those who want to have a degree but in today’s world – a “degree” that is in a field that has no demand coupled with a 30-40K loan is not a benefit to the taxpayers who paid for it.

        we need to get back to basics. we need to incentivize – getting an education that leads to a job – to a person who becomes a taxpayer, someone who pays for their kids instead of relying on the earned income credit.. someone who earns enough to buy a house without having to write off the interest as a deduction.

        and I guarantee you – that kids of all economic stripes know exactly the value of a 2yr Community College degree and will seek it no matter their parents education or economic status.

    3. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

      You mean a VT professor thinks VT deserves more resources? Fascinating…

      1. larryg Avatar

        yes .. a real shocker!

        re: every kid gets a B.

        well no.

        but the incentive is for the kids that KNOW they’re not likely going to go to 4-yr college no matter their grades.

        these kids – you WANT to work to get “B”s so they actually have a real opportunity at a real job after high school – something to shoot for no matter the finances of their parents.

        I’ continually amazed at the organizations that blame schools and essentially blame the poor not advocating for incentives to get kids to find opportunity in learning – to set their sights for something more than a lifetime of poverty.

        We spend all of this money on AP and IB and other courses for the 4-year college-bound then we continue the special treatment with loans in college and we do almost nothing to try to lift students out of a lifetime of entitlements after they graduate.

        People act like this is “liberalism” to “help” these students but look at what we do to help the 4yr college-bound, from high school to college – significant and costly taxpayer benefits yet something similar for those not destined for 4yr college are viewed as taxpayer subsidies and entitlements.

        sometimes it’s how you hold your mouth I guess but for me – every kid that grows up with enough education to get a job – to be a taxpayer – to not need entitlements – is worth the money to get him there – much more so that the college loans for 4yr kids to get degrees for which there is no demand in the job market.

        we’re screwed up as a society.

        we’re much more interested in what benefits us personally and as a family than what benefits society and taxpayers .. and ultimately our own k ids – who WILL grow up – paying for entitlements for the kids that do not get a minimum workforce education.

        Europe and Japan have much less problems along these lines.

        we have the great divide.

        one side goes to 4yr colleges and gets significant taxpayer subsidies and help and the other side are considered goats who deserve nothing.

        1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

          I’m just over people who went to school when A) Tuition was more heavily subsidized and B) the minimum wage had more purchasing power suggesting that the solution to the problems in higher education is cutting back on x, y and z.

    4. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

      “But…find another ‘state’ school like William and Mary in the nation.”

      – St. Mary’s College of Maryland
      – UNC Asheville
      – Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts

      There’s three.

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    What am I missing? When I went to college, darn near everyone I knew graduated in 4 years – 4 1/2 at the most. Wherever they went. Even my brother who clowned his way through HS and part of college graduated with his class.

    I also think the VT prof’s idea is interesting.

  4. larryg Avatar

    I guess I’m a cynic. I’d not be that surprised to see any state-supported University/College make a similar argument!


    For me – I’d put the money on the community college system so we can focus
    on workforce employment – so we can get more of our non-college bound – gainfully employed. taxpayers.. not entitlement takers.

    there are lots of good “certificate” type jobs out there these days especially in health care and K12 education, auto repair, HVAC systems…etc..

    I still like the idea of two guaranteed free years at a community college for any kid that gets a B or better. that’s a much better use of taxpayer dollars in my view.

  5. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Community colleges are very affordable. And heavily used by students of many ages and backgrounds. If taxpayers were required to pay for two years of school, virtually every student would suddenly get a B or better. We’d dumb down the institutions; cut back on the value of instruction and add many more educrats to the payroll. Leave well enough alone.

    1. larryg Avatar

      TMT – if many more students “suddenly” got a B and successfully completed 2 yrs of community college and got a job instead of going on entitlements – how is that a bad thing?

      would you rather pay for the entitlements instead just so you’d not be so worried about “dumbing down” and “educrats”?

      sometimes I do not understand those on the right.

      I see it as a way to get more taxpayers and less entitlement takers AND if it does not work out that way then do what it takes to reform it or just cut the program as Obama is proposing:

      ” Obama Administration Announces Final Rules to Protect Students from Poor-Performing Career College Programs
      New regulations put tough standards in place for career training programs to help protect students from being saddled with debt they cannot repay

      OCTOBER 30, 2014
      Contact: Press Office, (202) 401-1576,
      To protect students at career colleges from becoming burdened by student loan debt they cannot repay, today the U.S. Department of Education is announcing regulations to ensure that these institutions improve their outcomes for students—or risk losing access to federal student aid. These regulations will hold career training programs accountable for putting their students on the path to success, and they complement action across the Administration to protect consumers and prevent and investigate fraud, waste and abuse, particularly at for-profit colleges.

      “Career colleges must be a stepping stone to the middle class. But too many hard-working students find themselves buried in debt with little to show for it. That is simply unacceptable,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. “These regulations are a necessary step to ensure that colleges accepting federal funds protect students, cut costs and improve outcomes. We will continue to take action as needed.”

      To qualify for federal student aid, the law requires that most for-profit programs and certificate programs at private non-profit and public institutions prepare students for “gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” Under the regulations finalized today, a program would be considered to lead to gainful employment if the estimated annual loan payment of a typical graduate does not exceed 20 percent of his or her discretionary income or 8 percent of his or her total earnings. Programs that exceed these levels would be at risk of losing their ability to participate in taxpayer-funded federal student aid programs.

      over and over guy – you opt for the status quo – even when the status quo just sucks.

    2. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

      Does virtually every student in public school get a B or better?

      “Community colleges are very affordable.”


  6. larryg Avatar

    the proposed regulation I referenced up-thread is, in my view, a good, common-sense first crack at protecting taxpayer money being used
    for student-aid.

    too many young people, including young soldiers are seeing this money as
    “free money” that they can use any way they wish in college without regard
    to whether it actually has to be paid back and it’s turned into a disaster – not
    only for the for-profit companies but more and more – public institutions who are involved in an enrollment war to get as many students as they can even if it means lowering their entrance standards by no longer requiring SAT or providing financial aid for a course of study that has almost no chance of leading to a skilled job.

    student financial aid that comes from taxpayers should have – as Jim Bacon says over and over – some level of expected ROI on it.

    You expect Dems to try to get as much candy as they can from Uncle Sam but what explains the GOPs complicit behavior on student loans also when they are, at the same time, talking about cutting entitlements across the board for everything from health care to SNAP?

    Here you have what the GOP calls – a “socialist” POTUS who is actually proposing some real restrictions on loan money and where is the GOP?

    Even in Virginia – where the GOP can’t even find a way to accept billions of dollars for the MedicAid Expansion because they are “afraid” the Fed will pull the money back later – they have no such problem what-so-ever showering money down on higher ed with no strings attached and accepting every penny of Federal money to boot.

    I’m willing to bet that if Sweetbrier changed it’s name to UVA-Sweetbrier or Dominion-Sweetbrier they’d be “fixed” forever , eh?

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