David Ramadan column: Virginia parents, get ready to pay a lot more for that college education
Sirens and alarm bells, please!
For months, a cabal of Virginia’s public colleges and universities has been banging the drum in a well-financed campaign to convince lawmakers to allocate more money for higher education and relax state oversight.
If they succeed, brace yourselves and your wallets for the Virginia Shuffle, a new production premiering in the 2018 General Assembly, directed by college lobbyists and funded by our hard-earned tax and tuition dollars.
We — taxpayers — have responsibilities. Though some might prefer to spin off our public jewels, Virginians have built and own these universities, and we are obliged to keep the doors wide open for Virginians to earn an affordable college degree.
Greedy price increases by the institutions have far outpaced challenges to state support. The staff of the House Appropriations Committee found that over the past 20 years, public colleges increased tuition and fees by $2 for every $1 in cuts to state funding.
The College of William & Mary increased its charges by a mind-boggling 344.2 percent over 17 years. During the same time, the consumer price index rose only 35 percent.
And earlier this month, the University of Virginia (U.Va.) delivered a pre-emptive strike by taking the unusual step of voting on 2018 tuition hikes before the General Assembly meets. In a press release touting low increases, the rates ranged from 2.5 percent to as high as 17.5 percent for nursing students.
Nursing is one of the fastest-growing occupations in America, and the demand for nurses far outpaces the supply. According to one 2015 study, Virginia will need about 27,750 new nurses by 2030.
But instead of using its recently disclosed, multibillion-dollar slush fund to help, U.Va.’s Board of Visitors raised the hurdle to become a nurse by nearly 20 percent.
Brilliant for feeding the profitable beast, but tragic for would-be nurses and sick patients of the future.
Say what they may, boneheaded decisions like these are precisely why we need more oversight, not less, and why the General Assembly needs to insist on more, not less, accountability.
Lacking either, decisions like this help explain why — for five years straight — Virginia’s economy has grown more slowly than that of the United States. Numerous studies also tell us that indebted students are less likely to purchase homes, buy automobiles, and start new businesses.
Recognizing that, a dozen delegates and senators from both parties came together last January to introduce more than 20 bills to make colleges more affordable, accessible, and accountable.
Most met their doom in college affordability purgatory: the Senate Finance Committee, where a powerful committee chair is also on the payroll of a prestigious state-owned college and can dictate the success — or failure — of legislative initiatives affecting that institution.
The results have been disastrous, and Virginians know why. A recent Mason-Dixon poll showed that most Virginians believe such a cozy arrangement is a conflict of interests and a breach of the public trust.
Virginians are tired of being passed by indefinitely as college tuition has skyrocketed to astronomical levels, rising at rates even higher than those for health care. Carrying over $30 billion in student loans, they’re weary of hearing public colleges and universities cry poverty, and they want answers.
But the solution is not simply pumping more money into the system, though targeted expenditures to ensure desired outcomes make sense. Instead, the answer is for our next governor and the new General Assembly to change the status quo, to insist that institutions become more productive, and for all legislators to demand that their fellow lawmakers be free of conflicts of interest — or even the perception of one.
Why shouldn’t tuition and fee increases be limited to changes in the consumer price index? Why shouldn’t institutions close low enrollment programs, especially at the more expensive graduate level, and deploy new instructional technologies? Why shouldn’t undergraduates stop having to subsidize faculty research? And why shouldn’t institutions lighten a top-heavy load of highly paid administrators? Why, indeed.
In just a couple weeks, the General Assembly will meet. When it does, members from both sides of the aisle need to work with the new governor to freeze tuition at Virginia public universities. Lawmakers should require that board members and administrators answer to them and the public. And, once and for all, any legislator with an obvious conflict of interests should do the right thing for the commonwealth and step aside.
This year, the script of the Virginia Shuffle can be re-written. It can’t happen too soon for Virginia’s students, or for our collective future.