Policymakers | Costs

The spotted shirt

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH   |  June 16, 2013 by Opinion

“The cost of higher education has gone up all over the country,” the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reported two years ago, “but it has exploded at colleges and universities in Virginia.”

The study by ACTA found that while some of the increase was benefitting the classroom, “a growing share of school funds is going to pay for layers and layers of administration.” What’s more, “in the six-year period ending in 2008-2009, all but one of the 15 public institutions in (Virginia) increased their spending on administration and did so by an average of 65.1 percent. … At two schools (Longwood and James Madison), administrative costs more than doubled. … At Longwood, as with five other public institutions, instructional spending now constitutes less than half of all expenditures.”

Another report reinforces those findings. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission has released a study requested by the General Assembly. It shows that the sharp increase in college costs in Virginia results not from big investments in teaching, but rather in auxiliary functions—from administration to sports. Gourmet meals in fancy dining halls are taking precedence over the care and feeding of young minds. (ACTA’s study found nearly half of college students learn little in their first two years.)

Because of reduced state support, universities are relying more on money from families—or “customers,” as they sometimes are described. As a consequence, students are shouldering considerably more debt than they used to. A forthcoming editorial will address the student-loan problem separately.

Solutions are fairly straightforward: Roll back tuition. Cut the expensive frills—from intercollegiate athletics (most of which are heavily subsidized), to the multiplying number of do-little bureaucrats. Prohibit the construction of new buildings at any college that is failing to meet physical-plant benchmarks for existing buildings set by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. And go back to pitching higher ed on the strength of academic programs rather than country-club amenities. Students and parents bear much of the blame for this by demanding extras in the first place (and then complaining about the cost).

Defenders of Virginia’s colleges took issue with the ACTA study—arguing that it painted an incomplete and biased picture. The JLARC report suggests otherwise. If one person says you have an ink spot on your shirt, he might simply be messing with you. But if someone else comes along and tells you the same thing, it’s time to look at your shirt.


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