Bill DeSteph & Chap Peterson: Virginia must do better on college affordability

On more than a few occasions, we — a Democrat from Fairfax and a Republican from Virginia Beach — find ourselves polar opposites when it comes to a host of issues. But when it comes to higher education, there is no debate.

Study after study, including one prepared for Virginia’s State Council on Higher Education, states that a higher education is the key to innovation and prosperity. We agree.

We also agree with the report when it says that, “regardless of the reasons, higher prices mean fewer families can gain the education and training they need to grow and prosper in their communities.”

But when a $1 reduction in public funding for Virginia’s public colleges and universities is quickly followed by a $2 increase in tuition or fees — a fact that is typically left out of discussions about college affordability — it’s fair to ask why that occurs.

Of course, everything is more expensive than it was 20 years ago. But does it make sense that average tuition at Virginia public colleges has increased more than five times faster than a 36 percent increase in the consumer price index over the same period? Does it make sense that tuition has increased 30 percent faster than the cost of health care? To both questions, our answers are no.

This, by the way, is not a theoretical issue. It is real life.

A Virginia worker making a median wage must set aside nearly half a year of work (without taxes) to pay a Virginia public college tuition bill that’s grown to a staggering $30,000 a year. Of course, that doesn’t cover associated costs.

Do Virginia’s average workers make $120,000 or more a year? Of course not. Because if they did, Virginia wouldn’t currently be facing revenue deficits and budget shortfalls like the $1 billion deficit that the General Assembly faces in this fiscal year.

Then there is the other side of the story. Of the 23 people on the 2015-2016 state payroll who earned over $500,000 a year, 15 earned a check from one of Virginia’s public colleges or universities.

Voters are not happy with how Virginia’s public colleges and universities are being managed by their leaders. In a recent statewide poll, 66 percent of voters said they have a connection to one of our public colleges or universities, either through their own experiences or through a family member. Despite those allegiances, 75 percent also say they are “too expensive.”

As for priorities, 78 percent of voters say the boards of our public colleges and universities have an obligation to put the interests of Virginia’s students, their families and taxpayers first. Indeed, that is the whole point of a “Board of Visitors,” which ostensibly runs each institution.

That means fostering a cost-efficient model for public education, not subordinating this mission to achieve a couple rankings points in “U.S. News and World Report.” It also means that Board of Visitors must have the courage to stand up to college administrations when they see examples of obvious fiscal excess — or see tuition increases being passed along to families when those increases are both unnecessary and illogical.

Too many Virginians have lost confidence in our colleges and universities to wisely administer their most precious resources — “the land and the brand” — which belong to the commonwealth. That sentiment explains why over two dozen bills were introduced this session to limit the skyrocketing cost of higher education, re-energize Boards of Visitors and provide full information to families who pay the costs.

Candidly, it appears few such reform bills will see the legislative light of day in 2017. Indeed, it’s easier for Richmond lawmakers to just enjoy the gold-plated amenities of Virginia’s universities, without examining who pays for these luxuries through higher fees and tuitions.

Nevertheless, regardless of the sponsor’s region or political party, each reform bill should receive a full hearing because — as the SCHEV study plainly put it — public higher education today is at a crossroads.

It is simply wrong for Virginia’s students and their families to bear the burden of unconscionable tuition increases — at precisely a time when college affordability should be a basic economic imperative. The General Assembly has a clear and obvious responsibility to meet these concerns.

We can do better. And must.

Bill DeSteph, a Republican, is the state senator from Virginia’s 8th District. Chap Peterson, a Democrat, is the state senator from Virginia’s 34th District.

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