On College Affordability, History Need Not Repeat

by James Toscano

In his October 14 opinion column in The Virginian-Pilot, Gordon Morse decried a speech by Virginia Speaker of the House Kirk Cox that underscores the obvious connection between Virginia’s economic vitality and the roles our public colleges and universities should be playing.

But rather than focus on the future, Morse decided we needed a history lesson, replete with programmatic litanies of “who did what to whom” and “we got here because of political choices” made almost 30 years ago.

Naturally, the irony is inescapable: then, Morse was a speechwriter for one of Virginia’s governors and undoubtedly had every opportunity to weigh in on “political choices” that, today, he characterizes as wrongheaded.

What makes even less sense are criticisms leveled at the Speaker for suggesting that it’s time to consider new ways of writing academic success stories focused on affordability, and rewarding Virginia’s schools who lead the way in public and measurable terms.

To some, it may seem heretical to suggest change. . . to challenge old ways of thinking and doing.  But we’re not going to get out of this higher education mess without change, and the Speaker and others from both sides of the political aisle deserve credit for leading the way.

On the other hand, there will always be those who would rather dwell in the past and use history as a shield against change.  As Morse put it, “If only we could just get straight on the history — yes, it matters – of how we got to this point.”

Well, sure it does.  But only to a point.

Instead, what matters more is how our public colleges and universities will respond to these historic realities:

  1. Too many students are going into debt to get a college degree, and it’s not because they’re drinking too many lattes.
  2. College debt has become the albatross that’s dragging down our economy and draining Virginia’s talent pool.
  3. More and more, a tidal wave of mounting student debt is pushing graduates, parents and grandparents under water, and into bankruptcy.
  4. Left with no affordable – much less realistic – option, Virginia’s next generation of college graduates won’t be.  And then what?

Say what anyone might, but those leading our public colleges and universities – not to mention those governing them – have a primary obligation to educate Virginians first.

It’s what Thomas Jefferson – who wanted to be remembered as the founder of the University of Virginia instead of our third president – always wanted, but what far too many seem to have forgotten.

So if it means meeting a first principles obligation to follow the truth even if it means change, then so be it.

If it means one size will never fit all, and that it will take flexibility and new ways of thinking that don’t quite conform to the past, then so be it.

And if it means accepting that history isn’t a straight line, but something that can actually bend to meet today’s needs, then so be it.

Speaker Cox is a retired high school government teacher who knows these things.

The pity is that others seem to have forgotten them.

James Toscano is president of the Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust.

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8 responses to “On College Affordability, History Need Not Repeat”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I still continue to say that there are lots of options for getting a higher education these days -and on top of that many of the standard 4-year degrees
    are not worth the money to start with.

    And all those students, parents, and grand parents DO have options as there are a wide variety of Higher Ed choices that ARE affordable.

    This is more like people whining that they want the Cadillac and not the Honda… and they have “no choice” but to get the Cadillac and go into debt up to their ears.

    It just doesn’t wash. Don’t buy the high-priced spread if you cannot afford it and on top of that you CAN get a GOOD technical degree that the economy does want, in fact, is crying for.

    People want the “standard” autopilot on-campus degree diploma that is supposed to get them a “good” job –

    Millions of people in this world – cannot afford that – and, in fact, don’t pursue it – much less advocate for the GOvt to institute price controls or further subsidize it.

    Lord! People need to get off their chubby fannies and make the hard choices the world today presents and stop whining about what they want instead. People in other countries literally die trying to get to this country – to live in a shack and wait tables while they get an education.

    wait… wait…. let me go get my tiny violin and play it… Lord!

  2. Larry, in healthcare the U.S. spends twice as much as OECD countries and outcomes are not as good. In higher education, the U.S. spends twice as much per student as OECD countries and outcomes are middle of the pack. Both markets are characterized by huge government subsidies and guarantees, huge administrative costs, third party payments, limited consumer transparency on costs and expenditures, and the influence of entrenched special interests. You want more government involvement to control prices in healthcare and less government involvement to control prices in higher education. What gives?

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    @Izzo – well, FIRST, you have to recognize that all the countries that beat us in healthcare ALSO have a significant involvement of government. Right?

    So what gives on that?

    On K-12 – it’s similar – also a big influence of govt. so how do all those countries that beat us also have big govt? how does that work?

    On Higher Ed – if one is a Conservative and does believe in a free market – even a free market with govt subsidies – say…like the housing market or agriculture, etc… people, typically do not buy big houses they cannot afford or high dollar food they cannot afford… so WHY do we insist on doing it for higher ed , ESPECIALLY when there are myriad options for education these days that are cheaper and actually provide a better education that the economy wants? Why do folks keep pining away for an on-campus 4 year “experience” if it has become too expensive? What happened to our own ability to say no when something gets too expensive?

    I’ve never seen so much whining about something in my life. GAWD!

    I have to say – in the day- College was STILL expensive and many of the folks I knew – worked hard to earn scholarships and they got jobs waiting tables and the like to pay their way through college. Nowadays the phrase “pay your way through College” is like a foreign concept! What has happened to us? We’ve become College crybabies!

    1. “people, typically do not buy big houses they cannot afford” but people did, they were able to do that when lenders were able to lend to them. That same bubble is what’s fueling the rise in higher ed costs. One of the only levers in the public higher ed system is the General Assembly appropriations, so this is the place to institute pressure for change.

      You’re right, no one is mandated to pay X for higher ed, but with numerous public institutions chartered to provide an education for students to procure an education, that education should be affordable to those taxpayers; the responsibility should be shoved off to community colleges to shoulder the affordability burden. If they can’t get a grip on their spending, then the supply lever must be used.

      Working your way through school isn’t feasible when average tuition, room, board at a public is $22,639 and average Virginia per capita income is $36,206. Safe to bet that most 17-18 year-olds are not making $36, 206.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Speaking “conservatively”.. is it the responsibility of the government to make food, or fuel or housing or health-care “affordable”. Why do Conservatives say that it’s not the responsibility of the government to make things “affordable” and that’s the big problem with liberals?

        For myself, I think anytime the govt gets involved in trying to determine the value and price of something and then to dictate it – we often end up with unintended consequences.

        So.. for instance, the government seeks to make College loans “affordable” so the sellers of higher ed see this as allowing them to charge higher prices… right? wrong? If the government can’t make health care “affordable” how come we expect them to make College “affordable”?

        Every week or two, it seems like BR cycles back around to this issue and I have yet to see folks who self-identify as Conservatives and “free market” types – actually conform to what they claim their values are with respect to the proper role of government.

        There are LOTS and LOTS of options to get a higher education other than the traditional 4yr on-campus experience. Is that in the 21st century an anachronism? Hasn’t higher Ed been “disrupted” just as Uber has Taxi Cabs? Do we want to “save” Taxi Cabs and make them more “affordable”.. maybe subsidizing them so they are more affordable?


        1. I’m concerned only about the obligation and commitment of Virginia’s public institutions of HE, not all 4-year schools. The government/taxpayers own these, already. Why would we let UVA and VT and VCU and W &M off the hook and ask so much of VSU and TCC in terms of accountability? I concur that government intervention rarely leads to the desired outcome, but for hundreds of years these institutions filled their mission; only in the past 20 years has it eroded. Why let such resources run away untethered now?

    2. Larry, the question is why your responses are so inconsistent. You don’t really know or understand what I advocate.

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I have now carefully read Mr. Gordon Morse’s October 14 opinion column in The Virginian-Pilot.

    Mr. Morse’s opinion column is not useful. It is not accurate. It is not relevant to solving today’s mounting problems in Virginia higher education. Morse’s opinions will leads us nowhere. Its attitude and approach will lead Virginia’s establishment to continuing its failures, an unsustainable course.

    Let us be clear about what should be by now clear to all who want to see.

    The reason Virginia lost its way is that the dominant leaders of the education establishment in Virginia intentionally veered away from their sacred mission and obligation to rigorously teach and test their students, and to hold themselves and their students accountable for provable results.

    And, while they abandoned the rigorous and provable education of their students, these very same leaders in education spiked the costs of their “students’ education” up through the roof.

    The results of these two very intentional actions were two fold, namely:

    1/ The major institutions of higher education in Virginia, and most particularly those who ran those institutions, were greatly enriched.

    2/ The students within those institutions, and their parents, were greatly greatly impoverished, educationally, spiritually, and financially, their futures hobbled, instead of being lifted up into strong, vibrant, prosperous futures.

    Those results of this dereliction of duty by the higher education leaders in Virginia are now plain to see. The chickens have come home to roost.

    What now to do about it?

    (More will follow directly below. Please do not reply to this comment.)

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