This is a time of celebration. Tens of thousands of students graduated from Virginia public colleges and universities in recent weeks, joining with friends and family to mark the achievement as they become the next generation of professionals, academics and leaders.
That in-state students can receive a high-quality college education at a relatively affordable price should be a point of pride for the commonwealth — just as the potential for tuition increases at those institutions is concerning.
To continue to grow its economy, Virginia cannot price people out of college opportunities or saddle young adults with a crushing debt burden. Avoiding that will require action from schools and lawmakers alike, ensuring the dream of higher education remains attainable.
After a four-year period in which tuition at Virginia’s public colleges and universities held steady, most of those 15 schools have announced increases for the 2023-24 academic term.
The University of Virginia will raise tuition and fees by 3.7% while Virginia Tech approved a 4.9% hike. Locally, tuition is expected to increase 4.7% at the College of William & Mary, 4.1% at Old Dominion University, 3% at Norfolk State and about 5% at Christopher Newport University.
All 15 colleges assented to a request last year by the Youngkin administration to hold the line on hikes and to instead eliminate redundancies and cut costs to shield students and their families from the pressure of then-soaring inflation. But school officials warned that tuition increases would remain on the horizon if the General Assembly didn’t boost higher education funding.
For some schools, the tuition increases this year will hinge on what is included in the budget package expected from lawmakers in the coming weeks, putting the ball squarely in the General Assembly’s court.
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This tension between school officials and state lawmakers stems from an established trend of shifting the cost budget for higher education from the commonwealth to students. A 2022 study by the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia found “Virginia’s educational appropriations per student was lower than 37 other states in FY 2021 (excluding financial aid, research, and medical education). …. In the first two decades of this millennium, the share of educational costs borne by students in Virginia has climbed by nearly 24 percentage points, a cost shift exceeded by just 10 other states.”
When public investment in education declines, students pick up the slack. That means more promising qualified students face a higher cost barrier to entry and more graduates leave campus with a larger loan debt, impeding their economic potential for years.
Important to note: There are avenues to a college degree in Virginia that dramatically lower the cost of attendance. Students can begin their studies at a community college before transferring to a four-year school. They can take advantage of state and federal grant programs, or school-specific programs to assist low-income students.
It’s not all on lawmakers. Schools must also be a part of the solution by taking a hard look at their operations to ensure they are trustworthy stewards of public money. Administrative costs should be held as low as possible and extraneous or redundant programs and initiatives should be eliminated.
But the question for Virginia is whether the cost to students and the cost to taxpayers is properly balanced. Public investment in higher education pays a host of dividends, from generating cutting-edge research to the way schools serve as economic development engines that improve their communities and the commonwealth.
Let’s not forget that a major reason Amazon chose to build its second headquarters in Virginia, and why so many other companies are locating in the commonwealth, is the highly skilled, tech savvy workforce educated by the state’s public colleges and universities.
As Virginia celebrates another class of college graduates, it must make sure future generations have the same access to educational opportunity. Public investment in higher education keeps costs low and helps the commonwealth grow, and that thinking should guide lawmakers’ work in the coming weeks.