The old model of increasing budgets and raising tuition — without cutting costs — is unsustainable. Students and their families are suffering. The in-state tuition for U-Va. already takes up nearly 20 percent of the median household income.
That’s why U-Va. should be viewed as ground zero in a national struggle for excellent and affordable education. While the university board’s opaque process in removing Sullivan is regrettable, the board is right to be concerned about the direction of the university.
Higher education is on a collision course. Student debt exceeds credit card debt. Tuition increases at a faster rate than even health care. Studies show that more than a third of students learn virtually nothing in four years of college. And even though the United States spends more per higher-education student than any other Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development nation, we have worse results.
Something’s got to give — or everything will.
Faculty and administrators are up in arms, but these same individuals have, for decades, resisted cutting costs and providing accountability. Meanwhile, U-Va. tuition and the administrative share of educational and general expenditures have both jumped by more than a third, each over a six-year period.
Surveys show that the public believes universities can do more and better with less, but most administrators don’t agree. In a survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, almost four out of five college presidents said they were satisfied overall with the state of American higher education.
That kind of complacent thinking has for too long characterized higher education, and that thinking is at the very core of the dispute between the U-Va. board and the president.
Had incremental changes begun a decade ago, presidents and boards today might have the luxury of more gradual reform. But that hasn’t been the case at many institutions across the country that have chronically plugged budget gaps with tuition hikes. That leaves institutions now facing major financial challenges.
Across the country, administrative expenditures have been growing at a far faster rate than instructional expenditures. The data also indicate that, for research universities such as U-Va., the number of classes the average professor teaches has fallen from 2.9 per term in 1988 to 1.8 in 2004. If faculty simply returned to the 1988 standard, a university could enroll many additional students per professor, resulting in thousands more students.
But that kind of rethinking is apparently asking too much. The 2012-13 U-Va. operating budget, released a month before Sullivan’s removal, continues to rely on student tuition and fees and patient revenues from the university’s hospital.