Investing in Higher Ed is a No-Brainer for Virginia | Editorials

Thirteen years ago, the General Assembly made a promise to the Old Dominion’s schoolchildren and their families: If they chose to continue their education at one of the commonwealth’s public colleges and universities, legislators would put up the dollars to cover two-thirds of the tuition costs.

That promise came after more than two decades of dwindling taxpayer support for Virginia’s public colleges and universities. In the early 1980s, public dollars covered well more than half of the annual budget at the University of Virginia; today, they barely account for 10 percent. The percentage at other schools is higher than the well-endowed UVa, Virginia Tech and the College of William and Mary, but the downward trend is in place across the board.

The Assembly hasn’t been as faithful as it promised when it has come to fully funding those tuition costs.

Today, in 2017, the state isn’t even covering half of the in-state tuition costs legislators promised in 2004. To cover the gap and keep their word to Virginia students, it’s estimated the additional cost would be $600 million per year. And that’s in addition to overall budget mandated by the Assembly. In the 2017 state budget, higher education funding was cut 2.5 percent from the previous fiscal year.

So how are the state’s public universities and colleges to make up the lost tax support? Raise tuition and associated student fees. Boards of visitors from Williamsburg to Fairfax, Richmond to Harrisonburg and Charlottesville to Blacksburg have done just that. For example, the UVa board of visitors has raised tuition every year, both for in-state and out-of-state students. Over the course of five years, the in-state tuition at UVa rose from $12,000 per year to $16,000. Other universities saw the same trend.

Now before anyone accuses us of siding totally with the universities, hold on. We readily admit that some of the state’s schools, like any others across the nation, have unnecessary or even wasteful spending. A couple of years back, the trend at universities was to provide as many top-notch amenities as possible to attract top-notch students. One such luxury, in our opinion, was the over-the-top fitness center. Schools, including UVa, spent tens of millions to build recreation and fitness centers that rival Olympic training facilities. Then there was the college arms race, so to speak, to build the nicest and most luxurious dorm facilities, again under the assumption that the school with the most luxurious dorm rooms would attract the best students. That thinking, we would argue, is more than a little flawed.

That said, we do believe our elected officials must change how they view higher education in the commonwealth. In the past, legislators with ties to UVa or Tech or W&M would protect “their schools” in the budgetary process. Schools with less powerful alumni and supporters in the Assembly would have to fight tooth and nail for the scraps that would fall from the budget conference table.

Our legislators must come to view public higher education as one of the most important economic investments they can make in Virginia’s future, no matter if it’s UVa or W&M, Norfolk State or Old Dominion. Study after study has shown that college students will settle down in the state where they attended school. If Virginia did more to make tuition affordable for more of its residents, more of those students likely would remain in the state, contributing to economic growth.

If a top high school student from Southside Virginia goes to Virginia Tech to get her engineering degree, remains in the state and eventually opens her own engineering firm, that is an outstanding return on the taxpayers’ investment. The same for a computer science graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond or a physician from UVa. It’s really quite simple: By investing in our own, locally produced talent over a period of years, Virginia could benefit economically and socially for decades to come.

We need the brightest Virginia students to remain in Virginia for our own economic futures. It’s really that simple.

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