Higher education article didn’t tell the full story

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To the Editor,

Your lead article from November’s issue [“Finding a way to fund higher education”] would have been more helpful if it had focused not on how we might fund higher education no matter how stiff its appetite for cash might become, but rather, on how we might persuade our universities’ leaders to apply the brakes to their runaway spending habits.  Instead, we got treated to the latest round of “lies, damned lies and statistics” — numbers presented only selectively, and only to the extent they would lead a reader to believe that we all need to dig much deeper to rescue our state’s highly regarded colleges.

There are a number of true, but misleading, sets of numbers that are always highlighted by those who want us not to notice their spending sprees while they seek more and more money from us.  One is that the percentage of operating budgets paid by the state has shrunk over time.  Most who hear this would get the impression that state contributions per student have fallen over the 30-year period discussed in your article.  In truth, state funding per student has outpaced inflation.  The state’s fractional share has indeed fallen, but that is not attributable to reductions in the numerator.  Rather, it is caused by substantial growth of the denominator — that is, unchecked increases in the total amount being spent. 

Another favorite tactic of the advocates for continuing to ramp up spending is to use the 2001 state budget year as the baseline for all comparisons.  Those familiar with Virginia’s budgetary history will remember that Gov. [Jim] Gilmore made a bargain with our state’s universities early in his term, under which he ramped up the state’s infusion of cash substantially in exchange for a tuition freeze.  When Gov. [Mark] Warner came into office in January 2002, one of his first moves was to undo that deal.  Warner immediately slashed the state’s contributions to higher education in an effort to close a budget shortfall, while freeing the universities to offset the cuts by resuming annual tuition hikes.  When you remember this, you realize that 2001, as the last year of Gilmore’s term, represents the absolute apex of an unusual period for state funding.  It is not by any means to be presented as a typical budget year for use in making historical comparisons.

William & Mary is my own, and my oldest son’s, alma mater, and we are rightly proud of that in our family.  I certainly do not mean to undermine the College in its efforts to remain among the very best universities in the nation.  But using what I learned as an economics major and mathematics minor, I know when someone is trying to flim-flam me with manipulated numbers.  A dispassionate examination reveals that William & Mary’s annual operating budget, stated in per-student terms, has grown markedly over the last 30 years even after you adjust for inflation.  While I am less familiar with other schools, I suspect the situations elsewhere are similar. 

I do not know if I can lay the blame, as my good friend Delegate Bob Tata did, upon supposedly underworked and overpaid faculty.  That sounds too much like scapegoating to me.  What I would suggest is that when our college presidents talk to us less like caretakers of our children’s futures and more like politicians wheedling for ever-increasing taxes, we need to impose fiscal discipline by pressure from outside the institutions.  Boards of visitors are commonly stocked with big donors and fundraisers.  Perhaps we could benefit from a few who would attend meetings wearing green eyeshades, forcing spending habits to come under greater scrutiny.  Just as we are learning with our federal government’s budget, we cannot simply continue on our spending path with no better plan than to spin creative arguments about how someone else ought to have to pay for it all.

Make no mistake, doing nothing more than shifting the bills to someone else is the current fiscal strategy.  The current standard operating procedure at universities is to jack tuitions through the roof, and then to try to soften the PR fallout with promises of more and more financial aid.  Under this business model, college administrators sit in judgment of exactly who among us can afford to pay more, and who, from among those students they want on campus, should get relief from the ever-skyrocketing sticker prices via financial aid.  In Econ class, my professor called this “price discrimination.”  In the context of state-supported universities, it is really just a second layer of stiffly progressive taxation in sheep’s clothing.

What I would suggest to Virginia Business is that you do more than provide a bully pulpit for the advocates of ever-increasing higher education spending, and instead engage in some true investigative reporting.  Start with questions like:

What amounts were spent, from all revenue sources, and stated in inflation-adjusted and per-student terms, on annual university operating budgets in 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011?
What explains the increases?  And which of those increases might, in tight budgetary times, be revisited and possibly eliminated, so as to keep higher education more affordable?

I would very much like to read an article that presented the findings of a careful study of historic data, as opposed to merely serving as a conduit for advocates of ever increasing public sector spending.

Brad Marrs, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 2002 to 2006, is an attorney with the Richmond law firm Meyer, Goergen & Marrs. 

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