WM may be 80 percent Virginians

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January 27, 2009

12:50 AM

A bill recently introduced in the General Assembly would require that 80 percent of students at state public universities come from Virginia. Sponsored by Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), the legislation calls for a 1.3 percent yearly increase in the proportion of Virginians to out-of-state students until the goal of 80 percent is attained.

Approximately 65 percent of students at the College of William and Mary currently reside in the state of Virginia, the result of a tacit understanding with the state legislature. The ratio of in-state to out-of-state students is technically left to the discretion of individual universities.

Albo was inspired to propose the bill by the story of a young man in his constituency who was rejected from the University of Virginia despite having a 4.0 grade point average. He recalled a time when “normal people could get in” top Virginia universities. Albo, a graduate of U.Va., was accepted with a 3.8 high school GPA.

As a public official, Albo said he can best serve his constituency by ensuring that Virginia taxpayers have the opportunity to send their children to Virginia state schools. According to Albo, the College is “the biggest offender.” He noted that around 35 percent of College students come from out-of-state, an improvement, he said, from the peak of nearly 40 percent in recent years.

The College’s finances are particularly poor this year after the state cut $14.6 million from the budget. Based on tuition fees, Albo’s proposal would have a further negative financial effect on the College, holding everything else constant.

According to the College’s website, out-of-state undergraduates currently pay roughly $29,326 in tuition and fees per year, while in-state students pay about $10,246. Increasing the proportion of in-state students would mean lower yields from tuition.

Albo argues that state universities have several possible solutions to the financial challenge. They could, he said, “raise tuition for everybody.” Alternatively, he argued they could expand the total size of their student bodies, thereby maintaining the present number of out-of-state students.

Albo suggested that current patterns of university spending are misguided, noting the current emphasis on highly paid professors and new construction.

“[Virginia public universities] are not spending their money the way I want them to spend their money,” he said.

Although several past bills designed to fix the in-state/out-of-state ratio have failed in the General Assembly, Albo expressed optimism that his bill would succeed. He especially focused on the fact that this is the first time the state government has attempted to increase the percentage of in-state students incrementally.

In the case of some universities, the goal of 80 percent would not be reached for about 10 to 14 years , according to Albo. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that Virginia universities would attempt to block the bill, saying that the effort “is going to be an uphill battle for sure.”

Albo feels, however, that the legislation would meet the needs of his constituency.

“The citizens have told me that they want their money spent on getting more access to colleges,” he said. “For the last 15 years, I’ve been trying to get these schools to let in more state kids, and it’s just not happening.”

Albo does not believe that his bill would have a negative effect on the renown of Virginia’s public universities, which are among the best in the nation.

“You couldn’t possibly hurt their reputations,” he said, stating that top Virginia universities could easily fill their freshman classes with exceptionally qualified Virginians. “The problem is that there are lots of qualified students who can’t get in the door.”

Economics professor David Feldman, who specializes in higher education economics, doesn’t share Albo’s optimistic view of the legislation. Feldman argued the financial difficulties posed by the bill.

“The smaller the fraction of the student population that is from out-of-state, the less that we can do with that out-of-state population to solve our financial problems,” he said.

Feldman also said that the out-of-state tuition can only be raised so high before the university ceases to be competitive.

However, Feldman drew more attention more to the potential effect on the student body.

“The problem with ratcheting [the proportion of in-state students] up to 80 percent is that you reduce the likely quality of the pool of students who are here,” he said.

Feldman also noted that the nationwide applicant pool is necessarily more diverse than that of the state of Virginia alone.

“The talent pool from which we draw would shrink,” he said. “We would take a substantial hit to the quality of the institution.”

According to Feldman, there is another troubling consequence, the change in ratio “would also affect the willingness of truly good students to want to come here.”

The bill will face some opposition, Feldman said, recalling previous attempts by the legislature to impose set proportions of in-state to out-of-state students on Virginia universities.

“I suspect that the state universities that are selective should be able to beat this one back as well,” he said. “We have some friends in the state legislature.”

Albo’s legislation, House Bill No. 1696, has been filed and is awaiting hearing before the House Committee on Education.

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