Pricing students out of an education -- Gazette.Net


The cost of a college education in Virginia is going up … again.

According to the State Council of Higher Education, undergraduates at the state’s public four-year universities will pay 5.2 percent more in tuition and mandatory fees in 2015 than they did a year ago. This year’s increase is up from 4.3 percent last year and 4.1 in the 2012-2013 academic year. Between 2008 and 2012, state tuition increases averaged 8.4 percent, with a high-water mark of 10.6 percent in 2011.

Imagine if Target or Harris Teeter bumped their prices up by 7 or 8 percent a year for a decade. People would find other places to shop.

Unfortunately, most of Virginia’s college-bound students don’t have that option.

We suspect students and legislators aren’t happy to see state universities raise tuition and fees for the umpteenth year in a row. But as students and their parents scramble for extra nickels and dimes, our distraught lawmakers need only blame themselves.

Since 2000, tuition charges to in-state students in Virginia have directly reflected the state’s economic condition. In periods of strong economic growth, the state put a tight cap on tuition increases. In leaner economic times, university presidents were allowed to assess double-digit increases to offset general fund reductions.

In the end, the biggest losers were Virginia families whose efforts to save for college were severely hampered by an expensive, unpredictable process.

This year, due to the budget impasse in the General Assembly, higher education institutions had to set tuition rates without knowing how much money they would receive from the state. Despite initial promises of up to $100 million in additional higher education funding, in the end funding increased by just $5 million.

It’s also worth noting that the student share of attending a public university will hit an all-time high next year. The state’s tuition policy sets a target for the General Assembly of covering at least 67 percent of the cost of education, leaving 33 percent for students. For the 2014-15 school year, Virginia students instead will cover 53 percent of educational costs.

During the 2000-01 academic year, tuition and fees for an in-state student at the University of Virginia were $4,160. Next year, the rate will $12,998, a 206 percent increase in just over a decade. That same theme is playing out at George Mason, Virginia Tech and every other public school in the state.

We recognize that everyone and their brother wants a slice of Virginia’s ever-shrinking budget pie. We also recognize that the health of our public universities and the ability of in-state students to afford and attend them is critical to Virginia’s future.

Going forward, university presidents must find a way to keep tuition hikes in line with standard inflation while recognizing the link between affordability and access.

Virginia’s legislature can do its part by restoring higher-education funding to pre-recession levels and stop treating the system like a prized piñata. Lawmakers must take some responsibility for the recent hikes and take an active role in curbing them.