Virginia’s high tuition costs are a burden for students and families alike. The General Assembly offers the best path to reform.
If you are a student at Virginia Tech — or a parent helping foot the bills — then Aug. 10 and Jan. 10, 2019 are likely circled on your calendar.
Those dates are deadlines to pay tuition fees for fall and subsequent spring semesters at the university. We imagine similar marks are also on the calendars of the tens of thousands of families with students attending the University of Virginia, Christopher Newport University, the College of William and Mary and any of the state’s other public universities or community colleges.
For too many families, the approach of those deadlines comes with anxiety and frustration concerning how the bills will be paid.
Publicly funded institutions of higher education are supposed to be a lower cost avenue for students who do not have the means to pay for private college educations. But swallowing those bills continues to be a larger burden for Virginia families.
In-state tuition and mandatory fees at Virginia’s public universities and community colleges will increase again this academic year. There’s no surprise there; such expenses have risen each year this century. For the 2018-19 academic year, the average tuition and mandatory fees for in-state undergraduates will be $12,545, a $612 increase (5.1 percent) from the previous year. For students also paying for room and board, those charges will increase $348 (3.5 percent) from the 2017-18 academic year.
To be fair, the cost to attend private, nonprofit and for-profit institutions still hovers nationwide at $39,000 average. By comparison, public institutions cost closer to $16,700.
Here’s the part that concerns us though: Tuition and fees at Virginia’s public research institutions (such as Virginia Tech) are 9th highest in the nation, 5th highest for comprehensive institutions (Christopher Newport, Norfolk State, Longwood, etc.) and 8th highest for two-year institutions (community colleges).
The General Assembly’s Joint Subcommittee on the Future Competitiveness of Virginia Higher Education learned of Virginia’s high tuition costs in 2016 and did little to recommend how to make the state’s tuition more competitive. That was a missed opportunity to level tuition costs and find extra aid for families in need of relief.
The tuition bills can cut deep into parents’ savings, and the loans students take out can burden them for a decade or more after they attend their last college class. On average, students who receive a bachelor’s degree do so with more than $30,000 in debt they must pay off, regardless of whether they get a job in their related career field.
This board wonders, though, whether Virginia’s brightest students will look at the bills issued by our public institutions and move on to universities elsewhere. Such an instance would contribute to the “brain drain” feared by communities and employers alike. So we all have a stake in the affordability of higher education, regardless of whether we are physically the ones paying the tuition bills.
In some regards, the conversation concerning students’ career paths begins earlier than in the past. And the hardened pipeline to college that was vogue more than a decade ago has become porous as educators (and the board members who guide school policies) nudge students toward career and technical classes as well as degree programs that do not take place at traditional four-year universities.
High school administrators want students to fan out through an array of career paths. We imagine this will create a greater demand for public universities to offer incentives to draw in bright, prospective students. We hope this will be a long-term benefit in the years to come.
But until that tide turns, we need leadership from the General Assembly to tamp the increasing costs of tuition at public universities and to find meaningful ways to make avenues to higher education as accessible as possible. Close to 20 million students enroll in college annually. Virginia needs to be a place where high academic standards mix with low tuition costs to create an atmosphere where the best and brightest students compete for coveted spots in the commonwealth’s classrooms.
Legislators must fully understand what is driving up tuition costs — while still allowing the day-to-day operations of the universities to be run locally — and offer ways to provide relief for students.
The 2019 General Assembly must address the cost of obtaining a college education. Now is the time to begin the process of gathering information, discussing options and offering recommendations that can be acted upon in the upcoming legislative session.
This board is convinced that sharper focus on solutions that affect how we educate our students has never been more important. Look for more from us on this issue in the coming weeks and months.