Policymakers | Costs

Study faults costs, courses at the state’s colleges

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH   |  January 31, 2012 by Karin Kapsidelis

Administrative costs have outpaced spending on instruction at many of the state’s colleges and universities, while tuition and fees take an increasing share of family incomes, a study of 39 public and private schools in Virginia says.

Classroom space isn’t used efficiently, graduation rates while improving are still too low, and core curriculum courses in economics, math and U.S. history aren’t given proper weight.

That’s the assessment of a study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which found that tuition and fees at 17 of the 39 schools total more than 40 percent of median household income for Virginians. That’s up from 10 schools in 2004.

The ACTA report, the ninth in a series examining states’ higher education systems, was sent Monday to trustees overseeing the schools and the governor’s office.

Despite Virginia’s push to increase degrees in sciences and math, more than a third of the schools in the study don’t require a single course in college-level math, and none requires economics, the report said. Only two universities—James Madison and Regent—require a survey of American government or history.

Colleges may appear to provide a core curriculum because they require students to take courses in subject areas outside their major, the report said. But many of these courses are on narrow or specialized topics, which ACTA said do not count as a true general education course.

In a previous report, ACTA identified seven core subjects a liberal arts education should require. This survey found that only JMU and Hampden-Sydney College came close, requiring five of the subject areas.

Administrative costs grew by an average of 65 percent at public and 49 percent at private schools over a six-year period ending in fiscal 2008, the most recent year the figures were available, the report said. Instructional expenditures during the same period rose 45 percent for public schools and about 42 percent for private colleges.

Sometimes there are valid reasons driving these costs, such as enrollment increases, said Michael Poliakoff, ACTA’s vice president for policy.

“Still, the business of higher education is education,” he said. “We want to underscore that what goes on in the classrooms is what deserves the real focus in terms of new resources.”

At a time when the state is seeking to send more students through the higher education system, the study found inefficient use of space among the 15 public institutions. The average weekly use of classroom facilities ranges from a low of 18.2 hours at Virginia Military Institute to 49.4 hours per week at George Mason University’s main campus, the report said. Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion universities were deemed strong in efficient use of space.

ACTA was among the advocacy groups that in 2009 pressured Virginia Tech to back off from a proposal that would have linked demonstrated commitment to diversity to faculty advancement. This report was funded with support from the Portsmouth-based Beazley Foundation.

ACTA used data from the U.S. Department of Education, course catalogs and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Peter Blake, SCHEV’s director, said the report is a reminder to pay attention to student learning and efficiency.

But it does not take into consideration the upward pressure on tuition resulting from cuts in state funding and “seems to overlook the fact that learning occurs through a breadth of courses and settings,” he said by email. “The strength of Virginia’s system of higher education is based on the diversity of institutional missions, which does not seem to be given due consideration in this report.”


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