McDonnell blames the wrong culprit on tuition costs

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Print this page by Robert Powell

Gov. Bob McDonnell is using Virginia Commonwealth University as a whipping boy to make a point about rising tuition costs.

Tuition at state schools has doubled in the past 10 years. “That is unacceptable,” McDonnell says. So he is punishing the most obvious offender, VCU, which raised tuition 24 percent, $1,700, earlier this year.

The governor plans to withhold $17 million in state funds for 2012, an amount equal to roughly half of the $33.4 million that the tuition increase would bring in. He later told reporters that he might release the money if the VCU board of visitors learns its lesson and eases off on tuition increases this year.

The governor is using a bit of political theater to drive home a point that few would rebut. The cost of a college education, even at state colleges and universities, is getting too high.

But McDonnell is laying blame at the feet of the wrong group. The General Assembly’s lagging support for Virginia’s public colleges and universities threatens to create a higher education system of “haves” and “have-nots.”

Virginia’s most prominent universities, such as the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, increasingly are relying on private donations and grants to power their programs. State funds account for only 6 percent of U.Va.’s operating budget and 10 percent of Tech’s.

By contrast, most of the state’s other colleges and universities are much more dependent on state funds. Many don’t yet have a vast network of alumni with deep pockets. In addition, these schools don’t have a large share of out-of-state students whose higher tuitions help fill the money gap.

This scenario is definitely the case at VCU. Although its medical school dates back to the 1830s, VCU has been an independent state university for only 42 years. Because of state budget cutbacks, it lost nearly a third of state funding targeted for instruction from 2008 through 2012.

Last year, the General Assembly reduced state support for higher education by 27 percent, $400 million, through fiscal 2012 when compared with original budgets. The legislature tried to soften the blow by allocating a portion of its federal stimulus funds, $75 million for fiscal year 2010 and $198 million in FY2011, to colleges and universities.

The stimulus funds, however, run out after this year. That is one reason that VCU increased its tuition. “The loss of federal stimulus money combined with significant state reductions in financial support set the table for the board’s action,” VCU President Michael Rao said in a statement. “VCU faces a $42.4 million funding cliff between this and next fiscal year, the largest of any state university in Virginia.  A significant part of the tuition increase addresses this gap.”

Even with the price hike, the total cost of tuition and fees at VCU this school year, $8,817, still is lower than the average cost of Virginia’s 15 four-year public institutions. The highest is VMI at $12,328 and the lowest is Norfolk State at $6,227. The average tuition increase for all schools was 10.5 percent.

Sadly, this dance between Virginia’s universities and its politicians is not new. A report released in July by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia notes a series of recession-related budget cuts followed by tuition increases since the early 1990s. The $400 million cut in state funds enacted last year reduced state support for higher education to a level 33 percent below the fiscal year 2001 budget, after adjusting for inflation.

In 1976, Virginia established a policy dividing the responsibility for educating a student at one of its four-year institutions. The state would bear 70 percent of the cost, and the student would pay 30 percent. That goal was abandoned after budget cuts in the early 1990s. By the 1993-94 school year, students were shouldering 38 percent of the cost.

The state tried again in 2000, setting 25 percent as a target for students at four-year schools. By the 2001-02 school year, 13 of 15 schools had met this goal.

Since then, things have gone in reverse because of recessions in 2001 and 2007-09. The state now covers only 55 percent of the cost while the student picks up 45 percent.

The governor has big plans for higher education. To increase the Old Dominion’s competitiveness, he wants to increase the number of degrees granted to Virginians by 100,000. To do that, the state will have to make serious financial commitments to its colleges and universities instead of using them as political scapegoats. 


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