Recently, the Board of Visitors for several public colleges in Virginia instituted tuition freezes after receiving an increase in funding from the General Assembly. This is welcome news, as in-state tuition has risen 79% in the past decade. And while we certainly should be celebrating these actions, it is important to note that these small, and likely temporary, measures are not even close to enough to permanently lower tuition rates at the commonwealth’s public colleges and universities. In order to make higher education more affordable, systemic change in the education system must be undertaken.
By far the most important action the state must take to these ends is to increase state funding even more. Virginia, along with several other states, severely slashed its education budget in the aftermath of the Great Recession. With growing expenses, in addition to these cuts, colleges had no choice but to have students shoulder more of the costs through increased tuition and fees. These increases also flew directly in the face of a 2004 goal of having students only shoulder 33% of the cost of higher education.
According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, Virginia would have to spend $660 million in order to reach this goal, a fairly large sum and a far cry from the $52.5 million that was allocated to prompt the recent tuition freezes.
It is clear that in order to make public colleges more affordable and move the burden of funding these institutions to the commonwealth, more aggressive actions need to be taken by the General Assembly in future sessions.
In addition to the General Assembly, individual universities have a significant role to play in cutting costs to address affordability. One way to do this is to address increasing administrative spending, which from 1993 to 2009 grew at 10 times the rate of spending on tenured faculty in the United States. With no permanent solution for the increasing unaffordability of public colleges on the horizon, universities must reexamine exactly how many six-figure salaried school administrators they actually need.
Furthermore, spending on college sports teams is another area that is rife for reform. According to The Washington Post, several high-profile schools have reported an operating loss for their athletic departments as expenses have grown. At the University of Virginia, costs have grown relatively rapidly and, in 2017, it reported a loss after taking in $92.8 million in revenue and spending $100.3 million. Though many are understandably passionate about college sports, millions of dollars in losses are unacceptable and must be addressed.
Lastly, the amount spent on various amenities on college campuses must be reduced. In the last decade, colleges have engaged in what has been described as an “arms race” to improve facilities and other noneducational items in order to attract students and athletes. This has resulted in public and private colleges spending $11.5 billion in 2015 on construction, a large percentage of which was dedicated to new buildings. And while it is certain that many construction projects are necessary, we must do all we can to ensure that projects are undertaken due to their necessity and are completed in a cost-effective manner.
It is unlikely that many universities across the commonwealth will engage in these cost-cutting measures; therefore, the General Assembly must step in to ensure higher education expenditures are reduced. In order to do so, legislators must freeze tuition and fees at all public institutions as they increase state funding, while mandating that a certain percentage of these funds must be used to substantially reduce students’ share of the cost of higher education.
This suggestion might seem harsh, but if legislators are going to increase funding as dramatically as they need to, they must ensure that colleges don’t increase spending further without passing on the benefits to students currently paying sky-high tuitions.
Taken together, these measures are what is necessary to finally put a check on the crisis of higher education affordability. Some might criticize these proposals and say that increasing financial aid should be sufficient to help low-income students access these institutions.
This line of thinking is flawed as it neglects the status quo of higher education spending and violates the principle that public colleges must remain accessible and affordable to all students, even those who do not qualify for aid.
Only by dramatically increasing state funding and reducing expenditures by public colleges can we finally address the absurdly high cost of higher education in Virginia.