Poll: Virginians Unhappy with Runaway Tuition

A large majority of Virginia voters favor restricting tuition increases to the Cost of Living.
A large majority of Virginia voters favor restricting tuition increases to the Cost of Living. Source: Partners for Affordable Excellence poll

Virginia’s public colleges and universities have a big P.R. problem. Eighty-eight percent of Virginia voters think they are too expensive, according to a poll released this morning, and three quarters say they should not be allowed to increase tuition faster than the cost of living.

Furthermore, a large majority of voters said they want greater transparency into university budgets, and responded that university trustees should put the interests of students, families and taxpayers before the ambitions of university administrators.

The poll of 600 registered voters was conducted in early January by Public Opinion Strategies and Lake Research Partners. The underwriter was Partners 4 Affordable Excellence @ EDU, a sponsor of this blog. Founded in response to the rising cost of college attendance, the organization’s mission is to bring about change at America’s premier public research universities “in ways that maintain or enhance academic excellence and result in affordable tuition.”

Traditionally, the public policy debate in Virginia over higher-ed affordability and accessibility has revolved around the level of financial aid provided by state government. Universities defend higher tuitions as a justifiable response to reductions in state support. A recent report to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) found that cuts accounted for about half the increase in tuition over the past 20 years and about 14% of the total Cost of Attendance (which encompasses student fees, room, board and other costs as well as tuition).

Re-framing the debate, the Partners poll focused on policies within the control of universities, such as the percentage out-of-state students, financial aid, administrative waste, the prestige arms race, and, specifically, the University of Virginia’s accumulation of $2.2 billion in “unspent money” in its Strategic Investment Fund. (See poll results and pollsters’ commentary here.)

“This is the first in-depth look at voters’ views on an issue of critical importance to the state’s economic well-being,” said James V. Koch, president of Partners 4 Affordable Excellence and a former president of Old Dominion University. “When it comes to economic growth, Virginia has trailed the nation for the last six years. How we change the narrative can’t be viewed in a vacuum, and making higher education more affordable can lead to more jobs and improve Virginia’s economic vitality.”

“This poll confirms what many of us have thought for years — college costs are out of control and there is a clear link between affordability and economic success of every Virginia family,” said Helen Dragas, Partners board chair and former rector of the University of Virginia.

While the out-of-control escalation of the Cost of Attendance is not on a par with K-12 education, job creation and even traffic congestion among voter’s top concerns, it is “a strong second-tier priority” with 23% of those polled ranking it No. 1 or No. 2, the pollsters concluded. That scoring placed college affordability somewhat lower than crime & drugs but significantly higher than the environment, recreation areas & open space.

On the positive side, 84% of voters classified Virginia higher-ed institutions as “among the best” in the country. On the other hand 75% described them as too expensive.

The poll also found strong support for requiring at least 75% of the state’s undergraduate students be Virginia residents. Sixty percent of voters agreed with that proposition. Although Republicans were most likely to agree (71%), a majority of independents (61%) and Democrats (51%) went along as well. That finding can be construed as good news for Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield, who has submitted a bill, HB 1410, this session that would require 75% of the undergraduates at all but three state universities to be comprised of Virginians. If enacted, the bill would impact the three institutions with out-of-state enrollments exceeding 25%: the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, and James Madison University.

By a narrower margin (53% to 44%), voters said that colleges and universities should be allowed to provide financial aid to out-of-state students. That finding seemingly conflicts with Albo’s proposal in HB 1410 to forbid the tuition of Virginia students to be applied to out-of-state financial aid, and even caps the use of out-of-state revenue for that purpose to 5%.

Meanwhile, Republican candidate for Governor Ed Gillespie has made college tuition a campaign issue.  “Constant tuition hikes and rampant spending are making college increasingly unaffordable to too many Virginians, and we have to fix that,” he said last week. ““Virginia’s public colleges and universities — all of which are governed by boards appointed by the governor — must become more responsive to the needs of students and parents and taxpayers and less responsive to teachers, faculties and administrations.”

The poll delved into university governance issues as well. One question asked whether Boards of Trustees should prioritize the goal of making Virginia institutions more highly ranked in comparison to other colleges and universities or more accountable to taxpayers, students and parents. Seventy-eight percent of voters prioritized the latter.

By large margins, voters favor greater transparency of public college and university budgets and proceedings. Eighty-six percent said that board meetings to discuss tuition and policy should be “open to the public.” Eighty percent answered that the records and documents of university presidents should be held to the same standards as those of other employees. And 90% agreed that higher ed institutions should be required to “regularly and fully account for all spent and unspent funds.”

Finally, the poll addressed an issue that roiled Virginia politics for several months last year: the creation of the University of Virginia’s $2.2 billion Strategic Investment Fund. Partners 4 Affordable Excellence Chair Dragas first publicized the existence of the fund, setting off a huge controversy over how UVa had accumulated the sum without the public and General Assembly knowing of it, even as the board pleaded poverty to the legislature and raised in-state tuition 74%.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they favored applying the funds to lowering tuition and making room for more in-state students, as opposed to investing in technology, lab equipment and faculty recruitment. Likewise 73% said that they were bothered “a lot” by the board’s action to raise tuition 74% and the fact that it “never fully disclosed” the amount to Virginia lawmakers and taxpayers.

It is important to note, however, that only 16% of those polled had heard about UVa’s discretionary spending fund, and, therefore, were dependent upon the pollsters’ description of the controversy.

Bacon’s bottom line: I expect that defenders of the educational status quo will criticize the way Partners has framed the issues and worded its questions. And I have little doubt that a similar poll conducted by Virginia colleges and universities would yield somewhat different results. However, the big story here seems undeniable: that Virginians are distressed by the runaway Cost of Attendance at Virginia institutions of higher ed, and they are unhappy how boards of trustees have prioritized institutional prestige over affordability and access.

Legislators across the partisan divide are sensing this discontent, and we can expect more legislation like Albo’s to rein in the universities. One can cringe at the idea of lawmakers micro-managing universities from Richmond, but at the end of the day, university administrators and boards brought the problem upon themselves by exploiting students and parents to fund their institutional ambitions.

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25 responses to “Poll: Virginians Unhappy with Runaway Tuition”

  1. Well said, as usual. Even with or without numbers that Larry will inevitably criticize. The trend is inexorable. Higher education is the next institution that will have to rein in costs. The roadblock will be the federal government cost ratchet in the form of federal grants.

  2. Anyone who cares about their Virginia alma mater should be alarmed about this — not that we haven’t seen it coming!

    The basic question is how to give the typical middle class child the education he or she needs today, without killing their parents (or them) financially for the post high school years the kids expect and require for just about any decent career. We’re not prepping factory workers for physical labor in the local mill any longer. These are the parents we tell to prepare for retirement, then take away the wherewithal, their savings, when the kids grow up. And there are more resources to help lower class kids than those with wealthier parents.

    So the State needs to do a lot more, but how? There are two well-known models out there: TN, or NC. Free (like high school) 2 year community college, and the 4 year residential colleges know they are on their own; or, State-mandated admissions quotas and cost controls and curriculum interference in the resident colleges too, ruining their out-of-date reputations, and with inadequate, stingy funding from the State to do the job.

    We are part way toward the TN model in VA. We have a great community college system — but it’s not free. We have great 4 year public residential college system we say we cut free to find their own way, but we keep on trying to dictate results rather than pay to attend them. We still have parents desperate to pay for post-high-school college time for kids employers don’t want to hire right out of HS, or kids who graduate burdened with debt. Trying to control the costs at these residential colleges is needed, sure, but you expect the State to do this with anything but sledgehammer subtlety?

    Let the market control these costs through competition; make the baseline, community college alternative viable, and free. What’s wrong with the NC model? Everything, but the fact that it was politically popular with the legislature as the cheapest way forward at the time.

  3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Good article. These tuition hikes are a scandal, given the lack of transparency and out of control costs incurred by Administrators who are spending vast sums of other people’s money that do NOT improve the education of the vast majority of UVA students.

    The list of extravagant waste is nearly endless. $20 million state grant for a $60 million dollar Rotunda renovation to house Board of Visitors meeting room, for example. The whole project should have a cost a small faction of that $60 million amount.

    Outrageous sums are also being spent to create out of whole cloth a highly speculative “Research University”. This has the potential to improve the education of ONLY a few kids while it launches UVA on a fools errand quest to turn professors into “world class entrepreneurs” at the cost of vastly increasing the number of adjunct and graduate “Professors” who teach UVA students, while it vastly decreases the number of tenured professors to teach those kids, all in an effort to enrich already highly paid Research professors, and build the labs they demand in their ambition to spin off profits for themselves and UVA Administrators who are putting all the financial risks of these schemes on the back of state grants and student tuition payments, and Ill Gotten Strategic Research Funds stolen from others.

    1. Good to see you back, RF! I don’t disagree there’s enormous bloat, but is the way to control it through price controls or through competition? I’d like to see kids have the option to commute to get their undergrad education without tuition cost, or, choose to get the high cost residential experience, which not all will do..

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        I agree with you, Acbar.

        And I do not think the two approaches are mutually exclusive.

        In addition:

        I am not against research universities. Quite the contrary, I greatly admire them and help them, having greatly benefited from them personally.

        However, I am against the irresponsible way that UVA is going about it research fool’s errand, trying to turn UVA into a world class research driven university. I am not alone in this opinion. Many educators in other research driven Universities, people who know what they are talking about by reason of long experience, agree with my views.

        Insofar as the wonderful idea of giving people a great higher education, and/or highly useful skill sets, post high school within commuter range — unfortunately such opportunities in this country are far too often very hard to find. Years of educational malpractice have corrupted far too many of our commuter institutions. The reasons for this are many and complex as you probably know. Such things as rampant grade inflation where by fraud these institutions pretend to give people educations while they drain students’ bank accounts and saddling them with loans and feeding them fake educations full of corrupt core curriculum, that do not include good history, English, literature, and even now science. So no one fails any course or anything else anymore, and no one learns anything any more, even most of those attending highly ranked universities.

        These systemic problems have long infected and destroyed primary and secondary public education is most parts of this country. In short we need a total over haul of our educational institutions in the country.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    so if we took a poll on health care – and 75% said it was too expensive and the government should keep increases to only inflation , we’d do that?



    that poll.. it must have been 100% liberals, eh?

  5. It started at the end of the 1990s when states including Virginia deregulated public colleges and universities while reducing investments in public institutions. As a result there here has been a spending explosion financed largely through tuition and fees. This has led to $2 trillion in federal and other debt owed by graduates and dropouts who have limited economic benefit.
    Interestingly, the big beneficiaries have been college and university presidents who compensation increased by 20% to 30% per year on average.
    In 2012 The Chronicle of Higher Education had a front page story on president’s compensation and Virginia had three of the top ten compensated university presidents in America.
    At the same time spending on non academic elements of institutions exploded with literately billions spend on entertainment as a way of attracting students. One institution whose athletic fee was $400 per year increased the fee to $2,400 per year to add football or each student paid $2,000 per year for football which had little paid attendance. This means that many students who were there for five years getting a degree may have borrowed $12,000 to support the football team.
    And, the use of adjunct faculty has exploded with more than 75% of all college students in America being taught by part time faculty making $3,000 per course with no rank or professional standing. And this has created a surplus of young Ph. D. holders who cannot get starting academic jobs. Universities have to tighten up somewhere and they are doing it in the instruction not in executive pay or non academic areas.
    This happened when Hedge Fund Manages became millionaires and were appointed to college boards.
    Someone will have to “Pay the Piper” and who knows who that will be as the next bubble pops in America.
    Oh Gosh, I am rambling again.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      You’re not rambling. You are telling the truth about a subject you know a great deal about by reason of long and successful experience. Thank you for all you have done in educating our youth. And for stepping forward now and telling the truth about what’s happened to what had been the best, most reliable, and wide spread educational system in the world. Nothing can last when no one is held accountable, and where vast sums of monies are handed out without any accountability or strings attached.

  6. JW,

    What do Hedge Fund Managers have to do with the problems you cite? It seems to me that in Virginia’s case, they (we mean Dragas, don’t we?) were part of the solution.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    In case folks have not seen this:

    “Hundreds of Colleges Saddling Students With Unaffordable Debt, Feds Say”

    Even some Harvard grads are leaving school with debt they can’t repay.”

    About one in four career-training programs at U.S. colleges is at risk of losing federal funding, the lifeblood for most schools, the Department of Education said on Monday. In a news statement, the department disclosed for the first time the number of recent graduates saddled with potentially unmanageable debt.

    The figures are part of the package of rules known as the gainful employment regulations, which attempt to measure whether graduates of career-training programs end up earning enough to afford their student debt. The Obama administration defined affordability as annual loan payments of no more than 20 percent of discretionary income, or 8 percent of total earnings.


    Now… next thing you know – Conservatives will be complaining that the Federal Govt is “interfering” and imposing MORE draconian one-size-fits-all regulations on Colleges.

    It’s dang if you do and dang if you don’t!

    Maybe some conscientious soul in BR will actually admit that part of the problem is Federal Govt loans – and that putting rules on those loans is a reasonable thing to do – to protect taxpayers as well as students and parents who apparently do not have the self-constraint to not go deep in debt.

    I’m sure most parents would tell their kids that they’re NOT going to sign a loan for a 60K auto.. but they’ll do that for college – for a degree that has no hope of paying it back ..

    Blaming this on the colleges is deflecting from the real issue.. why do people insist on getting these terrible loans when there ARE alternatives.. ?

    Life is about choices we make.. what kind of message are parents sending to kids when they stand by while the kid incurs 60K in debt ?

    What boggles my mind is folks who profess to be fiscal conservatives.. and opposed to subsidies for others – completely abandon ship when it comes to college.. they’ll sign up for horrendous debt and want other taxpayers to help bail them out.

    1. Yes, government does have to put more restrictions on loans. The problem arose because the Feds abolished all the old lending standards — I’m guessing, but don’t know for sure, that someone found them to be discriminatory — and effectively had no meaningful restrictions on who could borrow. But it turns out that lending money indiscriminately can have a deleterious effect on the very demographics groups the loans were supposed to help. Where have we seen that problem before? Oh, yeah, the sub-prime lending fiasco!

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        you might like this part of the regulation FAQ:

        “What are the main components of the regulation?

         It has two components: accountability and transparency.
         The accountability component distinguishes between programs that provide affordable training that leads to well-paying jobs and those that don’t based on the debt-to-income ratios of their graduates.

         The transparency component requires institutions to provide key consumer information,such as what the typical graduate earns, how much debt they have, and what share of students graduate and find employment in the specified field.

  8. Well maybe it is the most recent version of the 1928 “Bet on Wall Street” financial mind set which brought down thh stock market in 1007/8.
    Recently saw a report that 35 university presidents made more than one million $ last year. All of that was paid for from student fees much of which was borrowed. And do not tell me that boards taking private money to pay the president is not money that could have been used as scholarships.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    In general, I am opposed to the govt regulating the salaries of CEOs of any organization, public or private… and I really don’t think such salaries even make up a substantial part of the overall revenues… anyhow. It’s just a kind of vindictive reprisal for conduct the public considers greedy. Some folks even think entertainers and sports figures, football coaches, etc also get paid too much. i say they are all worth what the market will pay them.

    It’s kind of funny because it really seems like we have folks who say they don’t care for govt dictating to private or even public institutions -dancing around the idea of having the govt, in effect, set price controls without ever really coming right out and saying that or maybe I don’t really understand what they ARE advocating for.

    The Govt HAS just recently implemented regulations that is called the
    ” Gainful Employment Rule”

    if you GOOGLE ” Gainful Employment Rule Questions & Answers” you can find out more about it but basically it applies to ALL institutions public or private and it denies govt loans for higher ed programs that cost more than 8% of post-college employment income.

    The rule was written a few years back but was delayed by lawsuits from for-profit schools that were eventually overturned and the rule went forward.

    I’m quite sure there will be questions and objections to the regulation as it goes forward but it is an attempt to guide the loans to education that has the potential for employment and let folks who just want a field of study regardless of whether it will generate a sufficient income be the financial obligation of those who want it – not taxpayers.

  10. LocalGovGuy Avatar

    A few points:

    A.) I did some consulting for a couple of Virginia universities in the mid 00s. If the Albo bill became law, it would definitely serve as a tool for resegregation of U.Va., VPI, W&M, and probably JMU.

    Every university fights like cats and dogs over African-American kids with good SATs and GPAs. Sadly, both in Virginia and the nation as a whole, the students with those numbers are nowhere near the African-America proportion of the population. The Ivies fight for those kids as well.

    Without out of state revenues and tuition shifting, you are likely to see a number of those kids go out of state. As the middle class hollows out and wealth inequality increases, it really puts a premium on African-American students that have the right admissions numbers. We will end up with very few African-Americans at those 4 schools if something like the Albo bill passed.

    B.) The Albo bill would really destroy working class and lower income white kids’ opportunities to attend those schools as well. You can be sure that the loss of tuition revenue from out of state kids will be made up by taking in-state kids’ whose parents can pay the whole bill. You can basically name this the “More NoVa kids at U.Va. bill.”

    C.) This bill may impinge on U.Va., but that institution will find ways to work around it. The deep pocketed alums at U.Va. will always make a mockery of whatever the state tries to do. Trust me, they have people waiting on the line to write 7 figure checks if called upon. When I did consulting, I was shocked at just how far U.Va. is ahead of all the other Virginia universities combined in terms of operations and finances. If you want to know which school would be hurt badly, no question it is Mary and Bill. Wow. This bill would cause an immediate drop in rankings and lead to layoffs. I’d bet 90% of that 38% out of state contingent is paying full freight. W&M is small. It does not have nearly as many deep pocketed alums as U.Va. The school simply could not take that kind of hit without being put on its back.

    D. I noticed the poll did not ask 2 questions that would have to be asked for a legitimate poll in terms of serious options: Do Virginians favor funding their public universities at the same level as North Carolina or Maryland? And…Do Virginians favor privatizing U.Va. and William and Mary and dedicating all state appropriations for those schools to the other state institutions?

    If you take a pure “financial efficiency” viewpoint (which this blog purports to do), privatizing U.Va. and William and Mary is, by far, the most efficient fiscal option for the state and would lower tuition at the other state schools.

  11. What I find problems with is that schools like ODU get the shaft and less money, when the big names don’t get that, from the state. When places like ODU, VCU, are trying to take on kids from backgrounds that aren’t predisposed to education, and get less funds to do it, these are the kids who possibly will stay around Virginia to become your middle class. It doesn’t do any good to shaft them. The UVA’s and Tech’s and GMU’s are going to have the well heeled to support them. Support the schools trying to do something on turning out middle class persons and families.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      maybe a question might be – should 4yr Colleges be for training workforces …

      Are the VCUs and ODUs essentially 4yr versions of Community Colleges?

      In the 21st century – unless one wants to be a service worker or similar – higher education is imperative. You don’t need to shoot for rocket scientist but you do need large dollops of technology… which in turn requires good reading and writing skills and competency up a notch in math.

      We still need doctors, engineers and other professionals.. and that a legitimate 4 yr and grad program college, business, education, medical… etc.

      I wonder what middle class really is any more… in terms of occupations.

  12. Agree generally, Larry. (Yeh, I know, a first :-0 ) What is lacking throughout, however, which you do not mention, is a sense of history and economics, which is barely taught any longer anywhere. Colleges sometimes called this Western Civ. And I long for the days when ordinary Price Theory was taught out of Alchian and Allen.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      economics? geeze Crazy -how many folks who say they believe in the free market , supply/demand are also simultaneously arguing for more funding for higher ed and govt price controls for tuition?

      How many GOP who say they support a free market for health care – also simultaneously support requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions ?

      I can go on and on here.. and maybe you’d agree with that too but suffice to say we have a ton of folks who are downright schizophrenic on economics.

  13. >>economics? geeze Crazy -how many folks who say they believe in the free market , supply/demand are also simultaneously arguing for more funding for higher ed and govt price controls for tuition?>>

    None that I know of, or at least none who have any sense.

    >>How many GOP who say they support a free market for health care – also simultaneously support requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions ? >>

    Again, none that have any sense. Now you are talking politics rather than economics.

  14. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    CrazyJD –

    Regarding quality of instruction in today’s American schools, see:


  15. I didn’t want to exaggerate my position, but the article is spot on.

  16. LarrytheG Avatar

    given ya’lls concurrence with the ideas expressed in that link

    ” U.S. civics education, if it exists at all, is being transformed into a political machine to push left-wing causes, undermine American government, and incite civil unrest, finds a 525-page report from the National Association of Scholars.”

    -I’m surprised that you support more funding of State Universities at all.. since they obviously are guilty of the multitude of sins outlined in that article, no? Isn’t that just feeding the beast?

    Ya’ll should be calling for the dissolution of UVA.. no?

  17. LarrytheG Avatar

    There are a number of schools like Liberty and Reagent .. dozens more for folks who think the public universities have gone over to the dark side.

    I do not understand why people who don’t agree with what has happened to the public schools is of such interest – as long as in our country – other schools with the values and principles desired – do exist and are available… and the attendees can still get government loans.

    As long as this country continues to be free and allows the creation of as many different kinds of schools that various folks want – what is the big deal?

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