Virginia’s public colleges and universities frequently publicize their commitments to diversity and inclusion. However, the institutions have not exhibited similar concern for the creeping economic inequality that has been developing in the student bodies of Virginia’s four-year public colleges and universities.

A 2017 New York Times piece disclosed that already in 2013 only 12.1% of undergraduate students at the College of William & Mary came from the bottom 60% of the family income distribution. At James Madison University, the comparable number was only 12.6% and at both the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, only 15%. Christopher Newport University, the University of Mary Washington and Virginia Military Institute all fell below 20%.

What this means is that relatively few of the sons and daughters of “common folk” are entering Virginia’s highly regarded four-year institutions. They and their families might pay taxes that support these institutions, but they’re not likely to attend them. Even if admitted, they probably can’t afford to attend.

The U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator provides “average net price” data that reveal what students eventually pay at specific institutions after grants have been taken into account. This website tells us that in 2016-17, the average net (after grants) price paid by students coming from families with incomes below $30,000 was $18,609 if they wished to attend public CNU. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that for fall 2018, CNU increased its in-state tuition and fees for undergraduates by 8.1%, even though the Consumer Price Index rose only 2.1% in 2017 and 1.9% in 2018 and CNU’s state appropriation was increasing.

Let’s face it: Virginia’s “high price, high financial aid” model isn’t working very well. Four-year public higher education increasingly is becoming the province of the well-to-do.

Dare we label this for what it has turned out to be — a sophisticated form of segregation — not based on race, but instead based upon one’s ability to pay? Dare we also point out that student debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1.5 trillion? Can we note that reputable studies from Federal Reserve System economists reveal that student debt reduces car and home purchases?

Public higher education traditionally has functioned as an important ladder of social mobility for lower income individuals. Individuals ranging from Colin Powell and Steve Wozniak to Henry Kissinger and Oprah Winfrey attended state colleges.What we observe today in Virginia is this situation being reversed.

Public higher education now increases economic and social inequality instead of reducing it. We now sort students on the basis of their family incomes and their ability to pay premium prices. If we expect this behavior to stimulate social mobility and generate a feeling of inclusion on the part of a typical Virginian, we’re sadly mistaken.

Campus pricing and financial aid policies unfortunately also carry unintended racial implications. The College Navigator reveals that in fall 2017, only 7% of undergraduate students at CNU, William & Mary and UVA were African American. Numbers at Virginia Tech (4%) and James Madison (5%) were even lower.

It’s time to confront reality concerning Virginia public higher education. Soaring tuition costs (thankfully stalled for a year because of recent action by the General Assembly), a broken financial aid system, and misguided elitism have morphed most of our public university campuses into engines of inequality.

Virginians now must muster the courage to admit what has been happening. Only then can we devise a program to improve the situation.

James V. Koch is Board of Visitors Professor of Economics Emeritus and President Emeritus at Old Dominion University. He is a member of the board of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust. Contact him at

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