VaPilot: Norfolk State On The Ropes?

NSU_logoThere has been a tremendous amount of attention being poured on Sweet Briar College in recent months, but the shaky condition of Virginia’s colleges and universities isn’t limited to SBC.  Norfolk State University, a school with an ancient pedigree here in Virginia, is also on the ropes:

“I’m tired of my school’s name being drug through the mud,” she said.

(Meleah) Holmes, a 20-year-old junior, has spent the past three years at Norfolk State – her mother’s alma mater. This spring, as the school slogged through the worst period in its 80-year history, Holmes ran for student government president.

Her campaign videos – posted to YouTube before the March 27 election – brim with ideas and the go-team spirit of a cheerleader, which she was at Salem High School in Virginia Beach.

I believe in NSU, she tells the camera earnestly. This can be the greatest university in the nation. We merely have to be the best students we can be! Save Our Sparta!

Holmes lost the election.

Read the rest of the VaPilot article from Joanne Kimberlin.  It’s reflective of a rising trend of student leadership in the governance and direction of many of Virginia’s schools, one that you’ll see reflected at Sweet Briar College, and even at the University of Virginia, as student body president Abe Axler tackles some of the very same issues of affordability and survivability in this weekend’s Charlottesville Daily Progress:

The cost of college success is more than just tuition; it now includes unpaid internships, business clothing and networking lunches. We need to ensure that all students, regardless of income, are given the tools they need to succeed.

From my perspective, Affordable Excellence philosophically makes sense; those who can afford to pay more will pay more. The jargon of the plan confused some, but, in short, it greatly increases the proportion of grant aid that students will receive in relation to loan-based aid. It is what is termed a “high tuition, high aid” model, with tuition set to increase $1,000 this year and another $1,000 the next year for families of incoming instate students. Students currently enrolled will simply benefit from the increased grant aid and will face no tuition increase.

Although some models appear similar, our model has no true peer. The University of Michigan recently adopted a similar model, but that state’s legislature simultaneously removed race as a factor for admission, greatly skewing the statistics.

Now for one, I have several deep and abiding concerns about the Affordable Excellence program — first being that it creates a bubble where, nature tending towards entropy, UVA will simply seek to expand until the student aid collected from overpaying students to be delivered to those who cannot afford tuition will simply be chipped away.  There are other more obvious structural flaws with Affordable Excellence, but those are for another day.

What’s more central here is that this is a story you see repeated in many of Virginia’s traditional colleges and universities.  Virginia Intermont closed in 2014.  St. Paul’s College — a historic black college with an excellent reputation and the Single Parent Support System; first of its kind — closed in 2013.  The rise of for-profit and online schools combined with the emphasis on accreditation vs. the cost of a four-year immersive experience is translated into one stat: traditional post-secondary education has become too expensive for many families to absorb on their own.

Here’s the math in a nutshell that makes sense at the kitchen table.  30 students in a lecture format, each paying $1,500 for three credits in a classroom.  That is $45,000 gross to put butts in the seat, make the light switch go up and down, and put a professor in the classroom.  Let’s say it costs $1500 to heat and cool that room, another $500 for supplies (there’s a run on markerboard pens, maybe we need printouts that day).  Another $5,000 for equipment or replacement (a biology class, perhaps).  Let’s say you underpay an adjunct professor for $20,000 for that one class — and considering most get a fraction of that, you have to pause — and you have to ask yourself… at the kitchen table level, where is the cost?

A “full load” at that rate is an annual tuition of $12,000/yr, which is more than doable for a four year institution.

At some point, this is where a conversation about STEM (or STEAM or STREAM — pick your target) meets the concept of for-profit universities or mere accreditation in trades such as carpentry, welding, electrician certification, mechanic certification, or plumbing.

In short, we have a bubble that is slowly bursting.  Everyone needs a house and they’re not making anymore land was the mantra of the nautghties.  In the ’10s, everyone needs an education to get a job (that doesn’t exist and the market isn’t rewarding certain degrees with employment).

Of course, some of this comes back to shifting economies.  A great deal of it has to do with consumption patterns in American households.  Not much of it has to do with manufacturing jobs — as Manufacturing 2.0 is going to look a lot more like Germany than China.  Some of it has to do with the cost of labor in the United States… but a great deal more of it has to do with the unreasonable expectations of an education industry selling something you need at a price you can’t afford that when put into the field?  Doesn’t work.

Meleah Holmes, at the age of 20, gets it — a prophet in the wilderness.  She’s not alone… and at some point, co-investors in these schools of higher learning — namely the students — are going to demand more of a voice in how their tuition dollars are being spent, whether that becomes more accountability to those footing the bill, or voting with their feet.

Hopefully  schools such as Sweet Briar and Norfolk State don’t learn that lesson too late.

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