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EDITORIAL: General Assembly begins efforts to rein in tuition

EDITORIAL: General Assembly begins efforts to rein in tuition

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THE VIRGINIA General Assembly worked hard this year on legislation and budget measures designed to rein in the rapidly escalating cost of state college tuition. Lawmakers felt compelled to act, because since the onset of the Great Recession more than a decade ago, they slashed funding to Virginia’s fine state colleges and universities and have not appropriated the revenues necessary to make up the difference.

The numbers don’t lie: Back in 2004, when the economy was humming along, lawmakers set a goal of covering 67 percent of the cost of a state-school education for Virginia students. As of the current school year, the state share was only 45 percent.

Though colleges have been on notice to cut their own budgets, with arguably mixed results, simple math suggests that they would be forced to raise tuition just to maintain the high standard of quality for which Virginia’s state schools are known.

The bottom line? Tuition at four-year state institutions of higher learning has gone up 80 percent over the past 10 years, with no school raising its tuition by less than 50 percent over that time, according to state figures.

For the 2018–19 school year, average four-year in-state tuition and fees rose more than 5 percent over the previous year, as reported by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Inflation, by comparison, has never exceeded 2.9 percent over the past two years and currently sits at about 1.6 percent.

It’s easy to see how so many Virginia families are being priced out of a four-year state university program.

The other bottom line is that more than half of students graduating from Virginia’s state-supported colleges last year left not only with a degree, but with close to $30,000 of debt, having borrowed about $7,500 per year.

Lawmakers’ efforts to ease the tuition crunch are much appreciated. But we would prefer that they spare us the rhetoric about the unfortunate situation Virginia families and students now find themselves in, given that these same lawmakers made the budget choices that put them there.

The legislature’s most effective remedy for soaring tuition is to increase higher education funding. To that end, the newly amended state budget will include more than $56 million to be shared among schools that agree to freeze tuition in the coming year. The budget also retains an additional $15 million sought by Gov. Ralph Northam for need-based financial aid.

These funding increases are intended, lawmakers say, to reduce the tuition burden for in-state students and their families by up to 5 percent. It’s a decent start, but the relief needs to be sustainable for years to come. Families and students should feel confident that tuition won’t balloon before their education program is complete.

When it comes to easing the tuition burden, the suggestion box is always open. Plenty of lawmakers have patroned innovative bills designed to help get it under control.

A bill (SB1204) introduced by Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford, would have required a tuition increase to be agreed to by two-thirds of a school’s student body. Though what students think about tuition hikes does matter, the idea seemed unwieldy and unworkable, and the bill didn’t pass.

Various other House and Senate measures that also didn’t survive proposed limiting tuition increases to the Consumer Price Index (which is used to calculate inflation), or to a 10-year average of increases.

Another bill (SB1660) patroned by Sen. William Stanley, R–Franklin, would have made the College of William & Mary’s “Promise” initiative the law of the land, meaning that state colleges would set tuition for each incoming class and guarantee to maintain it at that level for four years. That bill failed, too.

However, a bill (SB1118) that won unanimous approval in both chambers, the work of Sen. Chap Petersen, D–Fairfax, would require all state schools proposing a tuition increase to provide an opportunity for public comment before any vote on the proposal. Though some schools say their ongoing exchange with students and families on tuition increases makes such a comment period unnecessary, they’d better get ready to accept comments when a tuition increase is on the table.

If there is any investment that will pay dividends in the form of rising income tax revenues, it is easing the in-state tuition burden and encouraging more students to gain skills that will land them high-paying jobs. We urge lawmakers to continue their work in that regard.

opinion@freelancestar.com

Twitter: @FLS_Opinion

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