Frustration with Virginia’s higher education establishment boiled over during a press conference in the state Capitol building this morning as 15 senators and delegates from both political parties expressed their intention to curtail tuition hikes at public colleges and universities.
Legislators have introduced some 20 bills so far in the 2017 session addressing affordability and access at Virginia universities, and they expect more will be filed. A primary source of concern is how the state’s elite institutions are steering millions of dollars into financial aid to out-of-state students even as Virginians find the cost of attendance increasingly unaffordable.
Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, a graduate of the College of William & Mary, decried the high percentage of out-of-state students at his alma mater. Referring tongue-in-cheek to William & Mary as “the College of New Jersey-Williamsburg campus,” he said, “We need more in-state students.”
The University of Virginia is spending $20 million to $30 million in scholarships for out-of-state students, said Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield. He found that dispensation ironic given the fact that “for years we were told we needed out-of-state students to fund the schools.”
Another source of resentment was the accumulation of large financial reserves, particularly at the University of Virginia. UVa had cobbled together a $2.2 billion “strategic investment fund,” expected to generate $100 million a year in investment returns, even as the board of visitors raised tuition aggressively and lobbied for more state support.
The press conference followed the release of a poll released yesterday by Partners 4 Affordable Excellence @ EDU, a group created to fight runaway college tuition hikes (and a sponsor of this blog). That poll of registered Virginia voters found that a large majority overwhelmingly believe that the cost of college attendance is too high and support greater transparency of university budgets and decision-making.
Dr. James V. Koch, a former president of Old Dominion University and president of Partners 4 Affordable Excellence, opened the event with a review of data. Since 2000, he said, the Consumer Price Index had increased 35.2%. Over that same period the national Higher Ed Price Index had jumped 52.9%. In Virginia, the cost of in-state tuition and fees had shot up even faster, even as incomes have stagnated. The number of work-hours that it took a Virginian earning the median hourly wage to pay average tuition and fees for a four-year college increased from 227 in 2001-2002 to 438 this year.
Bills before the General Assembly would cap the percentage of out-of-state students at 25% at Virginia higher ed institutions, forbid colleges from using in-state tuition revenues to pay for financial aid, restrict the amount of out-of-state tuition that could be applied to financial aid, and limit tuition increases to the rate of inflation, among other measures.
University officials justify high enrollments of non-Virginians on the grounds that out-of-state students on average pay 160% of the tuition cost, in effect subsidizing Virginia residents. If lawmakers cut out-of-state enrollments, they will increase pressure on universities to jack up in-state tuition. Also, providing financial aid to some out-of-state students, they argue, is necessary to make attendance affordable for lower-income students and preserve socio-economic and racial diversity.
Del. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, was more concerned with helping poor, minority Virginia students. In Virginia, the percentage of students receiving Pell grants for low-income students is around 20%, the lowest rate in the nation, he said. The reason for the low participation, he explained, is that tuition, fees and other costs are so high in the Old Dominion that low-income students can’t afford to attend. Poor Virginian students should be first in line for student loans, he contended.
A similar argument was advanced by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, who represents an district in far southwest Virginia. As unaffordable as costs are for a family in affluent, suburban Fairfax County, he said, they create an insurmountable barrier for many families in Appalachia.
While legislators at the press conference shared a common concern about the cost of Virginia higher ed, they indicated no agreement upon which bills to support. Indeed, the issue of financial aid may prove divisive. While Spruill and Kilgore focused on the need of their lower-income constituents, a disproportionate percentage of of whom rely upon financial aid, other lawmakers represented middle-class households who are tired of seeing some of their tuition money diverted to financial aid for others.
“The high tuition, high aid model is out of control,” said Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach.
Albo described how as a young father years ago he had saved $20,000 toward the purchase of his dream car, a Porsche 911. When he found out about the Virginia 529 college savings plan, he decided to invest the money in the program to pay for his child’s tuition but was shocked that it would pay for no more than half. It galls him to think that families paying the full freight for their children are helping cover the cost of other students. When he hears from constituents, he said, “I have yet to see a letter written saying, ‘I want to pay more in tuition to help another kid go to school.”
Sen. Chap Peterson, D-Fairfax, described the tuition hikes as “untenable.” State universities have accumulated financial reserves triple the size of the state’s, far more than they can legitimately use. A vocal critic of UVa’s $2.2 billion strategic investment fund, he argued that any time an institution builds up a larger-than-needed cash surplus, the excess should go back to students and parents. “The purpose of a university,” he said, “is not to aggregate wealth.”
There was little mention of the General Assembly’s own contribution to the affordability crisis. A fiscal analysis presented to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) last month indicated that cuts to state aid to higher ed accounted for roughly half the increase in tuition in Virginia. (It accounts for less than one-fifth of the increase in total cost of attendance, however, if student fees, room, board and other expenses are included.)
DeSteph was unapologetic. When asked what blame the General Assembly might share, he retorted, “For every dollar we cut, they raise tuition two dollars!”
Participants in the press conference sounded one other common theme. Some of Virginia’s colleges and universities are operating like they are private institutions. The unanimous message this morning: They’re not.
“[Legislators] don’t own the colleges and universities. The boards of visitors don’t own the colleges and universities,” said Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, and a candidate for governor. “The citizens of Virginia do.”