Gillespie’s Platform for Higher Ed: Tinkering Aggressively on the Margins

Ed Gillespie, policy wonk

If Republican candidate Ed Gillespie gets elected governor in November, there won’t be any question about what he intends to accomplish as governor. He has published 14 public policy positions on topics ranging from taxes and public safety to K-12 education and sea-level rise. I don’t recall any gubernatorial candidate ever digging this deep into the public-policy weeds before. Love him or loathe him, you can’t criticize the man for avoiding specifics.

The latest salvo describes Gillespie’s plans for higher education designed to make Virginia “the opportunity capital.” He outlines three initiatives: a business-education partnership focused on workforce development and retention; one to make colleges and universities more affordable and accessible; and one to empower students and parents as consumers.

“In order for Virginia to truly grow, we need higher education to be more than just a degree manufacturer; we need higher education to contribute to economic growth and job creation and to help our students to pursue their dreams and add to the fabric of our Commonwealth,” said Gillespie in a press release accompanying the plan. “To realize our full potential, we must first ensure that higher education is affordable. With common sense reforms, strong partnerships and clear direction, our higher education institutions will thrive.”

There is so much material to cover that I can’t do it justice in a single post. I will focus on the most pressing set of issues, affordability. If I have time, I will address the other initiatives in future posts.

Within the mega-initiative of cost, affordability and access, Gillespie proposes six sub-initiatives:

Results-focused funding. Gillespie proposes revamping the criteria for funding public higher-ed institutions in Virginia. He would base state support “more on the individual performance of the institutions, with emphasis on results that matter to students and the Commonwealth.” Building on the six-year planning process refined under the Top Jobs Act, the state and individual colleges should agree upon performance objectives and metrics and corresponding support from the Commonwealth.

Metrics should address results that matter most to students, including enrollment, graduation rates, job placement success and earnings expectations, internships and student work opportunities, net cost to students after financial assistance, research and commercialization, and contributions to economic development.

The idea of using metrics to gauge the progress of Virginia’s public colleges and universities dates back to the 2005 Restructuring Act, and has evolved over the years. Small sums of money were tied to achievement of the goals. Gillespie’s new wrinkle appears to be making more funding than before contingent upon achieving the goals, although that is not clear. The challenge, as I outlined in my recent series on the 2005 Restructuring Act, is to gain consensus on the metrics and to be willing to actually withhold funds for institutions that fall short.

Financial predictability. Make state funding more reliable and predictable. The volatility of state support — up in good years, down in bad years — makes it difficult for higher-ed institutions to plan. Gillespie supports the creation of a higher-education reserve fund to even out the fluctuations. “Virginia students and their families,” he says, “will benefit significantly if the four-year met cost of attending a Virginia higher education institution can be guaranteed.”

Net cost restraint. Gillespie recommends a variety of other measures to make college costs more affordable. He would increase financial aid and work-study opportunities for low- and middle-income families. He endorses income-sharing agreements (presumably to repay student loans, although that’s not clear) in which colleges and universities share the risk and reward of post-graduation earnings. He describes the idea of admitting more high-paying out-of-state students as an “under-utilized strategy.”

Affordable alternatives. Gillespie endorses  alternatives to the four-year residential campus experience by promoting online learning, community college transfer programs, dual high school/college enrollment — all of which exist or are in the works already. More controversially, he wants to explore “no frills degree programs that offer reduced fees in exchange for fewer amenities.”

Incentivized collaboration. To “bend the cost curve” of higher education, Gillespie wants more collaboration higher-ed institutions on “measures that reduce costs and improve outcomes for students,” such as bringing new technology to campus to improve both instruction and administration. He cites favorable the newly created Online Virginia Network (soon to be profiled by Bacon’s Rebellion), which will increase online course-sharing across institutions. He also favors creation of a revolving fund for technology acquisition.

Enhanced governance. To enhance governance at Virginia’s public institutions, Gillespie would convene a panel of former rectors, board of visitors members, colleges presidents, and political leaders to examine best governance practices. Among other ideas, he would direct the panel to examine extending board members’ terms from four years to five, and establish minimum credentials for board members, enhance board member training

Bacon’s bottom line: Gillespie is not calling for fundamental change in Virginia’s higher-ed system. Many of the ideas he proposes are already in effect or in the works. He has drawn heavily from former Governor Bob McDonnell’s bipartisan higher education commission, reflecting the thinking of the establishment business community. The most innovative idea is that of exploring the creation of “no-frills degree programs that offer lower fees in exchange for fewer amenities.” Interesting thought. He needs to flesh it out. Otherwise, I would describe his approach as tinkering aggressively on the margins.

Two things are refreshing about Gillespie’s approach. First, he does not call for lots of new spending — he wants to make the higher-ed system work better with the resources it has. The main avenue he has left open for increased spending is his call for a higher-ed reserve fund, but it’s not clear how that would work or how much new money would be put into it. Second, he clearly recognizes that affordability and access are priorities right now. While he does not say forthrightly that higher-ed is experiencing a “middle-class” affordability crisis now, he seems aware that affordability and access are not just issues for lower-income Virginians anymore.

The main failing of the Gillespie plan is that it fails to address the underlying costs of higher-ed inflation. While some portion of tuition increases can be attributed to declines in state funding for higher-ed, legislators can’t be blamed for skyrocketing student fees or the relentless increase in the cost of room and board. Two factors stand out: (a) administrative costs are out of control, and (2) the competition for students has spurred spending on luxurious “Club Ed” amenities that affluent families can afford but others cannot. Unless he’s willing to tackle those two tough issues, Gillespie is best seen as another in a long line of establishment candidates with establishment solutions.

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