This Op-Ed by Senator Bill DeSteph and Senator Chap Peterson of Fairfax appeared in the Virginian Pilot on February 4th 2017
On more than a few occasions, we — a Democrat from Fairfax and a Republican from Virginia Beach — find ourselves polar opposites when it comes to a host of issues. But when it comes to higher education, there is no debate.
Study after study, including one prepared for Virginia’s State Council on Higher Education, states that a higher education is the key to innovation and prosperity. We agree.
We also agree with the report when it says that, “regardless of the reasons, higher prices mean fewer families can gain the education and training they need to grow and prosper in their communities.”
But when a $1 reduction in public funding for Virginia’s public colleges and universities is quickly followed by a $2 increase in tuition or fees — a fact that is typically left out of discussions about college affordability — it’s fair to ask why that occurs.
Of course, everything is more expensive than it was 20 years ago. But does it make sense that average tuition at Virginia public colleges has increased more than five times faster than a 36 percent increase in the consumer price index over the same period? Does it make sense that tuition has increased 30 percent faster than the cost of health care? To both questions, our answers are no.
This, by the way, is not a theoretical issue. It is real life.
A Virginia worker making a median wage must set aside nearly half a year of work (without taxes) to pay a Virginia public college tuition bill that’s grown to a staggering $30,000 a year. Of course, that doesn’t cover associated costs.
Do Virginia’s average workers make $120,000 or more a year? Of course not. Because if they did, Virginia wouldn’t currently be facing revenue deficits and budget shortfalls like the $1 billion deficit that the General Assembly faces in this fiscal year.
Then there is the other side of the story. Of the 23 people on the 2015-2016 state payroll who earned over $500,000 a year, 15 earned a check from one of Virginia’s public colleges or universities.
Voters are not happy with how Virginia’s public colleges and universities are being managed by their leaders. In a recent statewide poll, 66 percent of voters said they have a connection to one of our public colleges or universities, either through their own experiences or through a family member. Despite those allegiances, 75 percent also say they are “too expensive.”
As for priorities, 78 percent of voters say the boards of our public colleges and universities have an obligation to put the interests of Virginia’s students, their families and taxpayers first. Indeed, that is the whole point of a “Board of Visitors,” which ostensibly runs each institution.
That means fostering a cost-efficient model for public education, not subordinating this mission to achieve a couple rankings points in “U.S. News and World Report.” It also means that Board of Visitors must have the courage to stand up to college administrations when they see examples of obvious fiscal excess — or see tuition increases being passed along to families when those increases are both unnecessary and illogical.
Too many Virginians have lost confidence in our colleges and universities to wisely administer their most precious resources — “the land and the brand” — which belong to the commonwealth. That sentiment explains why over two dozen bills were introduced this session to limit the skyrocketing cost of higher education, re-energize Boards of Visitors and provide full information to families who pay the costs.
Candidly, it appears few such reform bills will see the legislative light of day in 2017. Indeed, it’s easier for Richmond lawmakers to just enjoy the gold-plated amenities of Virginia’s universities, without examining who pays for these luxuries through higher fees and tuitions.
Nevertheless, regardless of the sponsor’s region or political party, each reform bill should receive a full hearing because — as the SCHEV study plainly put it — public higher education today is at a crossroads.
It is simply wrong for Virginia’s students and their families to bear the burden of unconscionable tuition increases — at precisely a time when college affordability should be a basic economic imperative. The General Assembly has a clear and obvious responsibility to meet these concerns.
We can do better. And must.
This Op-Ed appeared in the Commonwealth Times on February 5th, 2018
Last year, almost two dozen colleagues from both sides of the aisle and both Houses of the General Assembly came together to support the radical idea that a degree from one of Virginia’s public colleges or universities shouldn’t come with a virtual lifetime of student debt.
We also called for more accountability and openness with respect to tuition decisions, and said it wouldn’t be out of order to listen to what Virginia’s students and their parents thought about the spiraling cost of a degree.
It didn’t take long for our state-funded colleges and their lobbyists to rush to Richmond to paint yet another rosy picture, offer promises to contain costs and do better, and suggest yet another study.
A year later, the paint has peeled, promises have been broken, and another study is collecting legislative dust.
Along the way, Virginia families and bright kids who want and deserve an affordable education are being priced out of the academic marketplace we fund with our tax dollars. Multiple studies conclude the high-tuition, high-aid model actually hurts low-income students
Now a “business group,” which serves as a front for the same public colleges and universities, is headed back to Richmond to lobby the General Assembly to loosen the reins and reject requirements for financial accountability. Yes, really.
Administrators and Boards of Visitors have become dangerously focused on expanding the budgets of the universities they run, often at the expense of the students they are meant to serve. Examples abound, but here are two.
Last month, the University of Virginia’s board of visitors voted unanimously to raise tuition for nursing students by almost 18 percent. That decision comes at precisely a time when there will soon be a shortage of nursing professionals as demands on the health care industry increase. And given the resources at that university’s disposal, that makes absolutely no sense.
Over 15 years, tuition and fees at the College of William and Mary have increased 344 percent, while the consumer price index went up only 35 percent. There’s something predatory about the costs of a degree rising at such an astronomical rate.
It’s been said that our colleges and universities are among Virginia’s greatest resources, and we would never dispute the need to invest in their futures. At the same time, we have a greater obligation to ensure that Virginia’s children can actually afford to use them as pathways to brighter futures.
This year, we are not alone.
During the recent gubernatorial election, both candidates made clear their concerns about the escalating cost of a college degree, and our next governor has already committed to holding tuition steady for Virginia’s full-time, in-state students who attend a four-year school.
That’s an important first step, if he follows through, but we need to do more for the 252,000 students who attend Virginia’s community colleges. They are people of all ages and all walks of life who are just as motivated as their four-year brethren.
Community college tuition can be just as daunting a challenge that stands between a two-year degree or a certificate attesting to training and a skill. Depending on the school, tuition has increased from 246 to 349 percent over the last 15 years.
And as we seek to re-energize our economy and create broadly-based opportunities and jobs, community college and four-year degrees should be financial realities for all Virginians. That’s why I introduced three senate bills (SB) to address tuition affordability. The bills essentially prohibit any percentage increase in in-state tuition that exceeds the annual percentage increase of the Average Consumer Price Index (SB 373), median household income in the Commonwealth (SB 377), and national average wage index (SB 577).
We need you, the students of Virginia’s public colleges and universities, to speak out and get loud. Please call your state senators and delegates to express your desire for tuition reform. As we’ve seen over the past year, when citizens organize and mobilize they can be powerful drivers of change.
It is simply wrong for Virginia’s students and their families to continue bearing the burden of unconscionable tuition increases — at precisely a time when college affordability should be a basic economic imperative. The General Assembly has a clear and obvious responsibility to meet these concerns.
This year, we can do better. And must.