Governor Bob McDonnell has asked college presidents and boards to limit in-state tuition increases for the 2013-2014 academic year to the Consumer Price Index or lower.
In a letter written earlier this month and made public today, the governor wrote, “After a decade plus of nearly double-digit tuition increases and mounting student loan debt, the cost of higher education is on the minds of parents, students and policymakers.”
In the current year, public colleges and universities have held tuition increases to an average of 4.1%, the lowest average tuition increase in a decade. But tuition still outpaced the increase in wages and salaries, making college more unaffordable than ever.
“I remain concerned about the affordability of post-secondary education for the young people of Virginia,” McDonnell said. “I need your continued innovation and leadership in holding down in-state tuition and fee increases.”
A dilemma faced by Virginia’s public universities is that McDonnell has pushed hard for them to boost programs in the STEM-H disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health), which tend to require more expensive investments in facilities and laboratory equipment than humanities and social sciences. He has set a goal of increasing the number of graduates from Virginia institutions by 100,000 degrees over the next 15 years, with a focus on STEM-H degrees.
Universities are exploring a number of new tuition plans, such as locking in tuition over a four-year program of study and charging more for expensive STEM degrees. Said McDonnell: “I encourage you to evaluate these and other tools that keep access affordable and tuition lower. I ask you to continue to aggressively pursue recommendations from internal and external reviews for cost savings, and in implementing the reallocation of resources’ policy embodied in the budget.”
Bacon’s bottom line: McDonnell’s heart is in the right place. But his message conveyed no tangible reason for university presidents to go along.
In the 1970s, federal authorities had a term — jawboning — for using the bully pulpit to chastise corporations and labor unions into tempering their inflation-inducing practices of raising prices and wages. That’s essentially what McDonnell is doing. Jawboning didn’t restrain inflation, and it won’t restrain tuition hikes.
Unless McDonnell threatens to yank millions of dollars in state assistance, President Obama threatens to restrict student loans, or consumers (students and their parents) rise in revolt, it will remain easier for college administrations to hike tuition than to face down internal constituencies and seriously grapple with costs.