College tuition is out of control. We asked Dr. James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, to explain the impact of the spiraling costs as Virginia’s public colleges and universities are considering next year’s rates — especially in light of new state funding in exchange for freezing tuition. Toscano, who lives in Virginia Beach, is a first-generation college graduate who served as a vice president at Tidewater Community College before joining the Partners, which seeks to make public higher education more affordable.

Why have tuition and fees at Virginia public four-year institutions skyrocketed nearly 80 percent over the past decade? Are other states seeing the same trend?

The Great Recession a decade ago collapsed state revenues. Instead of adjusting to this new normal by controlling costs or tapping other revenue streams, like endowments, colleges simply passed on a disproportionate share of rising costs to students and families through tuition and fee increases. That’s the pattern we’re seeing nationally. Placing the blame solely on state funding ignores the other important factor in the affordability equation: the role that institutions play in addressing the actionable cost drivers of providing a high-quality education. With state spending on the uptick, there should be corresponding tuition restraint. Clearly, colleges shouldn’t increase their prices just because they can.

The General Assembly this year allocated $52.5 million in new state money for public colleges and universities that agree to freeze in-state, undergraduate tuition for the coming academic year. What kind of a step is this toward controlling tuition?

It’s a temporary step — but a very significant one. There’s nothing stopping or incentivizing Virginia public colleges from returning to their old habits for the school year that begins in fall 2020. So, this could end up as a one-time breather from annual rising tuition. But it’s very significant in that, not only is $52.5 million real money that Virginia families can keep in their pockets that they otherwise would have paid in tuition, but it also sets a precedent that solutions, however temporary, can be found if we put consumers first. Virginia can permanently address the problem by legislating a cap on tuition increases while fixing the root causes — unstable appropriations and runaway costs — resulting in smarter spending by institutions.

What if colleges decide to offset the freeze by raising fees — how would that negate the intent of keeping tuition at the same level?

The General Assembly’s deal requires institutions to vote to also freeze “education and general (E&G)” fees that support instruction. That said, nothing is stopping institutions from jacking up other fees and room-and-board charges to make up for any revenue shortcomings. But the institutions know that the General Assembly and groups like mine are keeping a close watch. From what we’ve seen on campuses this spring, planned increases in non-E&G fees and room and board are on par with years past. So while there’s no evidence that institutions intend to “game” this system, it’s also true that families can expect their total cost of attendance to increase.

The General Assembly also passed a new state law that requires Boards of Visitors to hold public comment periods ahead of tuition decisions, which previously they were not compelled to have. Do other states have such exemptions or do they call for public comment?

Until Virginia became the newest state to add the requirement, there were 10 other U.S. states that had a statute or regulation requiring boards of trustees or statewide boards of regents to listen to the public before setting tuition rates. Although public input is commonplace throughout other Virginia public agencies, boards and commissions, Virginia wasn’t alone in its resistance to hearing from students and families — the consumers who pay rising bills — and taxpayers on the topic of higher education. When we raised this issue in front of the Virginia FOIA Council, the chair, state Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, said, “You guys highlighted a really big problem. I had no idea they didn’t allow people to speak when they’re really affecting people’s futures.”

You served as the student representative to the Board of Visitors when you attended Old Dominion University. How did that experience inform your view of higher education and its governance?

It’s easy to be a 20-year-old at a boardroom table with seasoned leaders and executives and be overwhelmed by the moment — I know I was. But I remember how seriously trustees took their service and how passionate they were about the university. Their heart is in the right place. But they don’t always hear fresh perspectives, particularly ones that help them understand the real-life financial consequences of their decisions on families.

-Pamela Stallsmith

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