The future at stake

Published 9:04 pm Friday, January 20, 2017

For all the talk of bipartisanship in Richmond these days, it was good this week to see legislators from both sides of the political divide and both houses of the General Assembly actually speak with one accord about a matter that threatens the future of the commonwealth.

The high cost of higher education became a campaign issue during the recent presidential election when Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont, made free tuition a linchpin of his pitch to Democratic voters. Free college tuition failed to give Sanders the edge over Hillary Clinton, who won the eventual nod from her party, but his proposal has spurred a nationwide discussion about how to make college affordable for more people.

That discussion is front and center during the Virginia General Assembly session that is taking place in Richmond now. And that’s good for Virginia.

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According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the inflation-adjusted annual cost of undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board at public colleges and universities across the country has more than doubled during the past 30 years. Adjusted for inflation, the cost of a year of college education for the 1983-1984 school year was $7,286. For the 2013-2014 school year, that cost had risen to $15,640. And those figures take into account only public institutions. Tuition and fees at private schools averaged $35,987 in 2013-2014.

Most folks in Virginia would be surprised to learn that the tuition paid by the commonwealth’s students is sometimes used to subsidize the education of out-of-state students. Many parents who have dutifully contributed to the state-sanctioned plans will be shocked to learn how much money will be required to cover tuition and fees by the time their children go to college, even though they’ve saved toward educational expenses for years.

But there’s more to the problem than the simple sticker shock that parents and students face when it comes time to pay for college classes. The reality is that many students who should go to college simply cannot afford to do so, and many of those who do go and pay for their education with student loans will find themselves repaying those loans for decades after their graduation.

Bernie Sanders may have been chasing the wrong solution with his idea of free college tuition, but he at least helped jumpstart an important discussion, and we are pleased to know that Virginia’s legislators are taking the matter seriously. We hope they will arrive at some substantive answers. Virginia’s future is truly at stake.