College inflation

A NEW book about higher

education reaches some

depressing conclusions. In “The Years That Matter Most: How Colleges Make Us or Break Us,” Paul Tough points out the forces that are making colleges and universities more and more inaccessible to those in lower income brackets.

Since 2008, the book reports, state legislatures have cut about 20 percent from their funding for public colleges. The institutions pass that pain on to the students by raising tuition costs.

Virginia’s General Assembly took a step in the right direction in its last session by providing almost $53 million in additional funds to make college more affordable. The trade-off: public colleges and universities in the commonwealth will not raise tuition for in-state undergraduates. This was the first tuition freeze of this type since 2001–02.

Universities can, for the most part, afford to share the pain, although endowments vary greatly. The University of Virginia, which announced a plan last year to waive tuition for in-state students whose families earn less than $80,000 annually and have “typical assets,” has an endowment of about $10 billion. That’s about $400,000 per student (graduate and undergraduate).

The University of Mary Washington, with an endowment of about $50 million and fewer than 5,000 students, still has about $10,000 per student.

Some other costs to students haven’t been frozen. Mary Washington, for instance, has increased some fees 14 percent, a $556 average increase for undergrads over last year.

The commonwealth has not done well by its in-state students for some time. According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, students in public colleges and universities pay 55 percent of the cost of an education through tuition and mandatory fees. The state committed to pay 67 percent in 2004, but its share has fallen over the years.

That said, Virginia’s public colleges are hardly blameless in the rising costs. They have raised tuition more than the legislature has cut its contribution, even allowing for inflation.

According to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, a study in 2014 showed that the state’s public four-year schools increased tuition by $4,177 (adjusted for inflation) over a 14-year period while the General Assembly cut per-student spending by “only” $2,831.

Virginia has some of the nation’s finest public universities. The legislature needs to keep funding them sufficiently so our state’s students can afford to attend them. And the colleges and universities need to refrain from empire-building and eschew tuition increases that rise above the inflation rate.

Graduates of Virginia’s public institutions are leaving college with an average student loan debt of $30,000. They could use a break, from both the politicians and from the colleges themselves.

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