Nikki Sixx and Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe. Mr. Sixx gets quoted in this report. Courtesy of Alec MacKellaig

If you think an academic report on the Virginia economy is boring, then you haven’t read the quotes that precede each section of Old Dominion University’s annual “State of the Commonwealth” report.

First we have Kurt Vonnegut: “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do,” which certainly describes the economy.

Next we have Will Ferrell, or, more accurately, his character Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights,” declaring: “If you’re not first, you’re last.” That’s a good introduction to an analysis of how some metro areas are doing better than others. (See yesterday’s column which pointed out that Lynchburg often comes in last in many of the categories ODU looks at.)

The section on tourism during the pandemic begins with a quote from the British writer Terry Pratchett: “All was black, gloomy and awful. There was no light at the end of the tunnel – or if there was, it was an oncoming train.”

Who needs all the charts and graphs when you have such pithy quotes as that? But then we come to my favorite quote of all, not so much for its wordsmithing, as who it comes from. Here’s Nikki Sixx, who we’re told (correctly) plays “a very loud bass” for Motley Crue, observing: “People say I have a distorted lens. I think I see things as they really are.” And with that the ODU economists kick off a chapter on higher education in Virginia, which they say “looks at Virginia higher education through a different lens – one that gives minimal attention to highly publicized ranking systems, such as that conducted annually by U.S. News & World Report, and instead focuses on what could be termed higher education bread-and-butter issues.”

It’s a chapter that matches the tone of many Motley Crue songs – loud and uncomfortable.

It’s hard to argue with math and this report musters a lot of math to make an unusual argument: that higher education in Virginia isn’t the great leveler that we like to think it is, it’s actually the great separator that is exacerbating divisions in our society. Specifically, this report says that a) the price of higher education is too high (we knew that already), and because of that, b) the state’s four-year schools aren’t doing a good job of educating low-income students. On the contrary, the report says c) those schools are mostly catering to the sons and daughters of the affluent, which d) leaves a lot of people behind, widening an already wide economic gap in the state.

I don’t pretend to be wise enough to understand the full story of what the ODU economists are saying – then again, I don’t understand all the lyrics to Motley Crue, either. I suspect there’s a lot more going on here than can be contained even within all the charts and graphs of the chapter entitled “Viewed Through a Different Lens: Evaluating Higher Education in Virginia.” But this sure does seem a chapter that Virginia policymakers – especially those now sitting in Richmond – ought to read.

Without endorsing the findings, let me attempt to summarize them. The report begins by focusing on the cost of attending each institution, who they serve and what the outcomes are.

One point that the report keeps coming back to: Colleges in Virginia (and maybe elsewhere, but the focus here is just Virginia) are for the well-to-do: “Except for the Commonwealth’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, no public four-year institution in Virginia enrolls a high percentage of low-income students. Indeed, the average public four-year campus in the Commonwealth enrolls only 6.34% from the lowest-income quintile, while 45.69% of the undergraduate student body are from the highest-income quintile. When external observers lament that higher education is becoming the province of the wealthy, they have Virginia data to back up their assertions.”

Now, we might expect private schools, with their heftier price tags, to enroll a more affluent student body. This report, though, says that’s not quite so: “Contrary to the expectations of some, the entire public sector in Virginia is more heavily tilted toward the highest-income quintile than is true at the Commonwealth’s independent institutions. Of the undergraduate student bodies at Virginia’s public four-year institutions, 45.69% are drawn from the highest-income quintile, whereas Virginia’s independent institutions average only 42.49% in this regard. One reason for this is that several independent institutions that draw their students regionally or locally are situated in rural areas within Virginia where earned incomes are lower. Averett University, Ferrum College and Mary Baldwin University provide examples. If we set aside the Commonwealth’s two public HBCUs, then the remaining dozen public institutions draw an average of more than 51% of their undergraduate student bodies from the highest 20% of the national income distribution. A recent op-ed in The Washington Post argued, ‘College isn’t the solution for the racial wealth gap. It’s part of the problem.’ The author might have had Virginia in mind.”

Courtesy of ODU.
Courtesy of ODU.

Let’s boil that down. This report says the state’s private colleges actually do a slightly better job of enrolling low-income students than the public ones do – not that either does a great job.

So where are low-income students going, if they go on to higher education at all? The community college system, the report says. It’s no surprise why: “A year’s study at a Virginia community college is less than half the cost of the same year at the typical Virginia four-year public institution and less than a third of doing the same year of study on a typical Virginia independent-sector campus.”

This would seem good news, right? We’ve always known that community colleges were a great bargain, right? This would also seem to confirm the good judgment of Gov. Mills Godwin more than a half-century ago when he used his political muscle to set up the community college system (against the wishes of some of the state’s four-year schools, most notably the University of Virginia). In the shorthand of history, Godwin gets remembered as a “former segregationist” for his role as a lieutenant of U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. during Massive Resistance in the ’50s, but he turned out to be a remarkably progressive governor who opened higher education to those from lower-income brackets: “16.1% of students on Virginia’s community college campuses came from households in the lowest-income quintile,” the report says. “Compare this to 6.34% at the four-year publics and 5.55% at the independent-sector institutions.”

Now, though, comes the part that my friends in the community college system won’t like but, again, it’s hard to argue with math: “It is readily apparent that today’s Virginia college students are distributed across the institutional continuum substantially based upon their household incomes. One might accord little importance to this phenomenon were it not for three factors. First, the probability of a given student eventually earning a baccalaureate degree is higher if she enters a four-year institution rather than a community college. Second, substantially more money is being spent per student at the four-year institutions than in the community college system. Third, the subsequent employment and earnings prospects of students typically are enhanced (though not always) if they start out traveling the four-year college route.” (The actual math comes in all the charts and graphs supporting these assertions.)

Here’s the alarm the report sounds: “The policy dilemma for Virginia is not that the preceding three conditions exist but instead the degrees to which they exist and the extent to which household incomes dictate student choices. In a democratic, opportunity-oriented society, family incomes should not decide all issues, especially those relating to education. Societal cohesion will diminish and even break down if household income levels preordain the opportunities available to talented and ambitious citizens.”

Instead of higher education creating a more open, and more economically mobile society, it actually seems to be creating a less open one, this report suggests.

(Thought experiment: Instead of spending more per capita on students at four-year schools than two-year schools, what if we spent equally? Another thought experiment: What if we spent more on students at two-year schools?)

The most devastating part of the report comes in a densely packed chart that attempts to measure economic mobility – if you go to a certain school, how likely are you to rise in income brackets over where your family started?

The short version: If you go to the “right” schools, you’ll make more money, with Virginia Military Institute, Washington & Lee University, the University of Virginia, the University of Richmond, Virginia Tech and Hampden-Sydney College being the most advantageous, in that order. How much of that, though, is because those students already have a head start because they come from affluent families?

This report adds another column: If a student came from a family in the lowest income quintile, which schools would do the best job elevating them in income? The answer: The University of Mary Washington, which slightly outranks Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, which come in second and third. (The school that comes in last among the non-profits: Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista.) By that measure, you could argue that Mary Washington is doing the best job of any four-year school in the state.

Courtesy of ODU.
Courtesy of ODU.
Courtesy of ODU.

Now we come to the report’s conclusions, and that’s where some readers will surely squirm. “Most highly ranked campuses today gradually have become more economically and racially segregated due to a combination of federal and state policies, coupled with certain societal changes,” the report says.

The authors are just getting warmed up: “With respect to state policies, in states such as Virginia the existence of independent governing boards for each public institution of higher education has allowed these institutions to go their own way with respect to admission policies, financial aid, the self-describing narrative they present to the public and, sometimes, even their mission. This has resulted in some campuses becoming substantially segregated in terms of student income levels and race.”

Ouch. The trend in Virginia has been for the state’s biggest schools to become more independent in their operations; this report says this has led to some socially bad outcomes. Among them: “Five of the 15 public universities in the United States with the lowest percentage enrollments of Pell Grant students are located in Virginia – JMU, VMI, CNU, UVA and W&M.”

In other words, some Virginia schools (including my own alma mater of JMU, I see) don’t seem to care much about poor students.

The authors say this in a somewhat longer way that they put in bold: “Whatever the causes of this stratification nationally and in Virginia, the traditional higher education task of providing opportunities for economic mobility has been largely forfeited by the elite and now falls substantially within the provinces of the community colleges and larger public urban institutions (GMU, ODU and VCU fill this bill in the Commonwealth). It is they who effectively now carry the economic mobility torch. If Virginia hopes to skirt destructive class and racial conflicts in the future, then it will be its community colleges and large urban institutions that will have to carry the proverbial ball forward. This does not preclude changes in behavior on the part of other institutions, but most have exhibited only marginal interest in doing so.”

Now, perhaps this is self-serving. After all, ODU is one of those “large urban institutions.” On the other hand, well, math.

Here’s the bigger problem: We’re in an economic era where education matters more than ever. The usual caveat: That need not always be a four-year degree. There’s a big growth in jobs that require only an associate’s degree or credentials. But, increasingly, a high school diploma is not sufficient for economic success, which is why we’re even seeing some conservative states embrace the notion of “free” community college, on a theory that a free K-14 education is the new K-12. If that’s the case, though (and it is), then we’re going to have to get a whole lot of people into higher education who previously haven’t been entering those doors. This report says the state’s “elite” institutions won’t be much help there, that community colleges and those urban four-year schools will be the ones we need to count on most. In that case, how should Virginia be spending its higher education dollars?

Ultimately, this really does sound like a Motley Crue song. Specifically, “Keep Your Eye on The Money.”  

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.