Last month I presided over George Mason University’s winter graduation, where I had the privilege of shaking hands with and congratulating thousands of students receiving degrees. These graduates are on their way to great jobs and leadership opportunities as writers, scientists, teachers, analysts, engineers, artists, and in various business and government roles.
I am especially proud that our students reflect the diversity of our modern commonwealth —from multiple nations and states, of every ethnicity, almost 40% in the first generation in their family to graduate college, and a third or more from economically disadvantaged families. Among my favorites were several Sikh students, proudly sporting Mason colors with bright gold turbans complementing their green robes. Growing up when I did in Virginia, I am in awe of how far we have come together.
Education is essential to the future of the commonwealth’s economy and the success of all Virginians. Especially crucial in our democracy is ensuring that high-quality education is available at every level and provides a trampoline to life success for all, regardless of circumstances.
To meet this goal, Virginia needs critical investments in education. The General Assembly will soon begin deliberation on Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget that will, if adopted, boost education by investing in our students from pre-K to K-12 to higher education.
As a current member of the Virginia Board of Education and former Secretary of Education, I have seen first-hand the impact of state support — and the fallout of inadequate resources — on our public schools. A Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report found that Virginia is 42nd nationally in state per-pupil funding.
Some communities have increased local spending to help, but this exacerbates inequities. Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds make up 40% of enrollment statewide and have needs that often require more resources and services. The proposed additional support, especially for traditionally underfunded needs, is a strong step toward closing the gap.
The governor’s budget also would enhance early childhood learning opportunities, a proven step toward educational success for students who otherwise might be left behind.
The proposed budget also calls for significant investments in higher education. The new resources support the goals of Growth4VA, a business-led coalition that champions making college more affordable and growing our Virginia talent pool, and would thereby strengthen the commonwealth’s workforce and help diversify the economy.
The governor’s budget would boost support for the tech talent pipeline and financial aid. Additionally, it would increase funding to four universities that have historically been underfunded and that serve a high proportion of the commonwealth’s low-income students: George Mason, Norfolk State, Old Dominion and Virginia State. At all four of these institutions, diverse students get the support they need to pursue the American dream. The proposed budget would move these universities closer to the investment levels they deserve.
George Mason University, long underfunded in relation to our peers, is the largest (38,000 students) and most diverse public research university in Virginia. We are the largest producer of tech talent in the state. We work hand in hand with industry to design degree programs to meet employers’ demands and to maximize strengths. Our tuition is among Virginia’s lowest, and our strong partnerships with community colleges enable students to save additional money by taking advantage of streamlined, cost-efficient transfer pathways.
Mason has driven 64% of net public university enrollment growth in Virginia between 2010 and 2018. But public funding has not kept up with that growth, leaving Mason with almost 25% fewer resources on a per-student basis than its peers. Mason’s location in the D.C. metro area provides tremendous advantages but also places additional strains on our revenues as our faculty, staff and students live in the most expensive region of the state.
Resource limitations mean that our faculty-student ratios are higher than they should be, we struggle to attract and retain top faculty and staff, and we cannot help all students achieve outcomes at the level to which we and they aspire. Some of our faculty, even while carrying heavy teaching loads, make less than public school teachers in the area.
In short, we cannot fully meet our mission of access to excellence without additional state support.
Virginia’s talent pipeline is our greatest asset, as validated by Amazon selecting Virginia for its HQ2 over more lucrative offers. Mason is proud to be a key part of that talent pipeline. I look forward to working with members of the General Assembly to encourage continued investment in education at all levels. We must find ways to bridge talent and opportunity for all of our students.