Making higher education affordable

Published 10:00 pm Thursday, July 19, 2012

By Gov. Bob McDonnell

In our competitive, global economy a college education can make all the difference in the world. Unfortunately, while the need for a college degree has increased, access to one has decreased for too many Virginians. Why?

Over the past decade Virginia has seen a significant disinvestment in our higher education system. The result has been a rapid increase in tuition that has forced some students to shoulder the burden of paying tuition that has doubled over the last decade, while simply making college inaccessible for other young people.

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For those who have been able to afford a college education, the cost remains with them far longer than they were actually on campus. In Virginia, 58 percent of students graduate with an average of over $23,000 in debt according to the Project on Student Debt.

This is an unsustainable and untenable situation. We must do everything we can to make college more affordable and accessible for Virginia students. Over the past two years in Richmond, working together, we have made important progress in this critically important effort.

We did it by combining good policy with effective funding. Our bipartisan, landmark “Top Jobs for the 21st Century” higher education legislation in 2010 created a new framework for higher education funding. And this year we put our funding where our policy is by investing over $230 million in state funding in higher education, the largest commitment in years. Our colleges and universities have partnered with us to implement these new policies and adhere to the new funding framework. It has worked.

Earlier this year, I asked our schools to try to keep tuition increases as close to the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index as possible in light of our new formula and significant new funding for higher education.

Over the last month, Virginia’s higher education institutions announced their tuition increases for the 2012-2013 school year. I am pleased to share that the average in-state tuition increase is 4.3 percent, with the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, William & Mary, Old Dominion University, Radford University and George Mason University all seeing their lowest increases in a decade.

This is an enormous improvement over the tuition increases we have seen over the last couple years alone. In fact, just last year the average in-state tuition increase was 9.9 percent. We’ve cut that in half in just one year.

Several factors contributed to this year’s minimal tuition increases. First, it is because of our institutions’ leadership, including presidents and boards of visitors, who have embraced our goal of making college more affordable and accessible for Virginia’s students.

In addition to dramatically moderating tuition increases, boards of visitors are also reallocating their resources to achieve the goals of the “Top Jobs” legislation. I want to commend the leadership at our Virginia colleges and universities for their partnership with us on these critically important issues.

We also have made a significant new investment in higher education in the new FY 2013/2014 biennial budget. This investment provides over $230 million in new funding for Virginia’s higher education system.

It includes new operating funding for each year of the next biennium for higher education institutions, some of which is based on performance for increased graduation and retention rates and more STEM-H and high demand graduates. These funds will reverse the trend of reductions to higher education that our institutions have seen since the 2008 legislative session. I thank the Virginia General Assembly for their partnership in ensuring that our students will no longer be faced with double-digit tuition increases. Finally, in 2011 we passed landmark higher-education legislation that creates a new framework for sustained reform-based investment and will encourage meaningful innovation through the use of greater technology, year-round facilities usage and innovative and economical degree paths.

This legislation has created the pathway to ensure that our schools are using their funds, facilities and faculty in a more cost-effective and responsible manner. Combined with the significant new investment we made this year through the budget, we are seeing this legislation in action.

It is more necessary than ever that students are able to go to a Virginia higher education institution, have access to a top-quality education and not be limited in their choice due to affordability.

Our goal is that students will no longer be limited in attending the school of their dreams because of the cost of tuition. We are on the right path to ensuring that students in the commonwealth see greater access and affordability to attend one of Virginia’s world-class higher education institutions.

Bob McDonnell is the 71st governor of Virginia. This column first appeared in Times Community Newspapers on July 17.