OPINION: Virginia Needs Tuition Reform Now

By Virginia Senator Bill DeSteph, Contributor

Last year, almost two dozen colleagues from both sides of the aisle and both Houses of the General Assembly came together to support the radical idea that a degree from one of Virginia’s public colleges or universities shouldn’t come with a virtual lifetime of student debt. We also called for more accountability and openness with respect to tuition decisions, and said it wouldn’t be out of order to listen to what Virginia’s students and their parents thought about the spiraling cost of a degree.

It didn’t take long for our state-funded colleges and their lobbyists to rush to Richmond to paint yet another rosy picture, offer promises to contain costs and do better, and suggest yet another study. A year later, the paint has peeled, promises have been broken, and another study is collecting legislative dust.   

Along the way, Virginia families and bright kids who want and deserve an affordable education are being priced out of the academic marketplace we fund with our tax dollars. Multiple studies conclude the high-tuition, high-aid model actually hurts low-income students.

Now a “business group,” which serves as a front for the same public colleges and universities, is headed back to Richmond to lobby the General Assembly to loosen the reins and reject requirements for financial accountability.  

Yes, really.

Administrators and Boards of Visitors have become dangerously focused on expanding the budgets of the universities they run, often at the expense of the students they are meant to serve. Examples abound, but here are two.

Last month, the University of Virginia’s board of visitors voted unanimously to raise tuition for nursing students by almost 18 percent.  That decision comes at a time when there will soon be a shortage of nursing professionals as demands on the healthcare industry increase. And given the resources at that university’s disposal, that makes absolutely no sense. Over 15 years, tuition and fees at the College of William and Mary have increased 344 percent, while the consumer price index went up only 35 percent. There’s something predatory about the costs of a degree rising at such an astronomical rate.

It’s been said that our colleges and universities are among Virginia’s greatest resources, and we would never dispute the need to invest in their futures. At the same time, we have a greater obligation to ensure that Virginia’s children can actually afford to use them as pathways to brighter futures.

This year, we are not alone. During the recent gubernatorial election, both candidates made clear their concerns about the escalating cost of a college degree, and our next governor has already committed to holding tuition steady for Virginia’s full-time, in-state students who attend a four-year school. That’s an important first step, if he follows through, but we need to do more for the 252,000 students who attend Virginia’s community colleges.  

They are people of all ages and all walks of life who are just as motivated as their four-year brethren. Community college tuition can be just as daunting a challenge that stands between a two-year degree or a certificate attesting to training and a skill.  Depending on the school, tuition has increased from 246 to 349 percent over the last 15 years. And as we seek to re-energize our economy and create broadly-based opportunities and jobs, community college and four-year degrees should be financial realities for all Virginians.

That’s why I introduced three senate bills (SB) to address tuition affordability. The bills essentially prohibit any percentage increase in in-state tuition that exceeds the annual percentage increase of the Average Consumer Price Index (SB 373), median household income in the Commonwealth (SB 377), and national average wage index (SB 577).

We need you, the students of Virginia’s public colleges and universities, to speak out and get loud. Please call your state senators and delegates to express your desire for tuition reform. As we’ve seen over the past year, when citizens organize and mobilize they can be powerful drivers of change. It is simply wrong for Virginia’s students and their families to continue bearing the burden of unconscionable tuition increases — at precisely a time when college affordability should be a basic economic imperative. The General Assembly has a clear and obvious responsibility to meet these concerns.

This year, we can do better.  And must.  

Senator Bill DeSteph is a state senator representing the 8th District in Virginia’s General Assembly. You can email him at contactbill@billdesteph.com. Discover your state senator and delegate at http://whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov/  

Graphic by Billy Ferguson