Are State Colleges Ripping Us Off?

Half of all college students make no learning gains in their first two years, and 36 percent show no significant intellectual growth even after four years.

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“You can observe a lot just by watching,” said Yogi Berra. A national group has been watching Virginia’s colleges and universities, and much that it has observed is not flattering. Grumpy old skinflints and youthful Occupy protesters alike should take note.

A new report by ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, notes research indicating nearly half of all college students make no learning gains in their first two years, and 36 percent show no significant intellectual growth even after four years. Yet GPAs have been trending upward. Colleges, says ACTA, are giving “more credit for less learning.”

And they are charging more for it, especially here. “The cost of higher education has gone up all over the country,” ACTA says, “but it has exploded at colleges and universities in Virginia.” At Christopher Newport in Hampton Roads, tuition and fees have risen more than 50 percent since the 2004-2005 academic year. William and Mary is almost as bad. Virginia Tech, VCU, and Radford have hiked student costs by more than 40 percent, and most other state schools are only a few percentage points behind.

University leaders will tell you they had to do this, because the General Assembly has cut their funding. True, but they overstate their case. First, steep tuition hikes extend far beyond the recent recession. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that college costs have risen more than 700 percent since 1981 â€" five times faster than all other consumer goods.

Second, Virginia colleges’ share of a growing state budget has shrunk in large part because other budget categories got bigger faster. Medicaid, for instance, is growing at an explosive pace. And as the ACTA report notes, “even before the augmented budgets of 2011, Virginia’s funding per full-time student in public higher education compared favorably with the funding levels in other states, exceeding that of such states as California.” (You can look up the colleges’ budget histories at http://dpb.virginia.gov.)

Where is the money going? Some is going to the classroom â€" but more is going to the bureaucracy. While spending on instruction has risen at every Virginia school, administrative outlays have risen faster at all but two: Norfolk State and VCU. “A growing share of school funds is going to pay for layers and layers of administration,” writes ACTA. “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 [education and general] expenditures.”

Schools are erecting new buildings â€" while existing classrooms sit empty. The State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) says classrooms should be used 40 hours a week and labs should be used 24 hours a week. Twelve of Virginia’s public colleges fall short of that benchmark.

There are some bright spots. Nationwide, only 79.5 percent of freshmen return for their sophomore year. UVa and William and Mary have first-year retention rates of 96 percent and 95 percent respectively. That’s superb. Only four of the 15 state schools fall below the average. Virginia’s colleges also claim better graduation rates than colleges nationwide.

But while 93 percent of UVa’s students graduate within six years, the figure is worse at some other schools. At Norfolk State, it’s an abysmal 34 percent. The low graduation rates suggest some schools are admitting students who aren’t ready. That doesn’t do the students â€" or the taxpayers â€" any favors.

What to do? First, a tuition rollback and freeze like that enacted a decade ago is in order. Second, state lawmakers should put some teeth into the Institutional Performance Standards monitored by SCHEV. Colleges that aren’t using their available building space already, for instance, shouldn’t build new classrooms and labs. Third, restructure financial aid. Giving students more money does them no good if colleges just jack up tuition accordingly.

Fourth: Ax the costly frills. As this column detailed in October, student activity fees that run to several hundred dollars subsidize activities that benefit very few students. The vast majority of college sports teams are unwatched money losers.

Fifth, lawmakers should check out “Less Academics, More Narcissism,” by the Manhattan’s Institute Heather Mac Donald. It’s an eye-opening look at the sprawling administrative empire created by the diversity industry in California’s college system. Virginia has some of the same problem. UVa alone has a six-person Office for Diversity and Equity, a seven-person Office of African-American Affairs, a Center for Diversity in Engineering, an Office of Graduate Student Diversity Programs, an Associate Dean of Diversity for the medical school, a program coordinator for Asian/Asian Pacific American programs, a program coordinator for multicultural student services, a program coordinator for the gay and lesbian resource center, and so on.

Finally, parents should be more hard-nosed about the country-club atmospheres colleges use to compete for applicants. This year tuition and fees at the state’s four-year colleges will jump almost 10 percent. Anyone think students will get a 10 percent better education in return?