In-staters should pay up

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September 18, 2009

1:55 AM

In an open meeting on campus Wednesday, the Board of Visitors heard arguments in favor of aggressively raising tuition next year. Unfortunately, this option must be taken. Little else can now be done without irreparably hobbling the College of William and Mary, and almost certainly other steps — like hiring freezes and furloughs — will also have to be taken.

When the BOV does finalize the details of these increases, in-state students should, for once, bear a disproportionately large portion of the burden. It has become clear that only if Virginian constituents feel a squeeze will Virginian politicians be forced to alter their policy of using this state’s system of higher education as a fiscal whipping boy.

Generally speaking, the deal a public university makes with its state is that the school will offer in-state students a superior educational product for a reduced cost if the state covers the difference using tax dollars. Under this arrangement, Virginia has fostered one of the most effective systems of higher education in the nation, and it is now possible for a Virginia resident to obtain an Ivy-caliber education for a mere fraction of the cost. This is special, and we should fight to preserve it.

However, over the last few decades, the commonwealth has reneged on its end of the bargain. Everytime there is a fiscal emergency — which are sometimes precipitated by short-sighted politicking, like when the gas tax was repealed — higher education is the first to take the hit. Then, in times of prosperity, reinstating our cut funding quickly slips from the General Assembly’s list of priorities.

Consider the long view: In 1980, Virginia covered 42.8 percent of our operating costs. The latest round of cuts reduced the state’s contribution to such costs to about 13.7 percent. The University of Virginia is being funded at a much lower rate — around 6 percent — and it is likely we are heading in the same direction.
Over the same period, the tuition of out-of-state students has risen dramatically faster than that of in-state students. Virginians are now paying three times as much as they would have in 1985, while their out-of-state counterparts pay five times as much as they would have in that time period. In absolute figures, the difference between what each group pays is staggering: $20,000 annually. In total, this one-third of our student body pays nearly two thirds of the school’s revenue from tuition.

While farming budget problems out to students from other states is the politically safe option to keep costs down for resident students, the true cost of the commonwealth’s decision to underfund its schools is being completely hidden from its constituents in this process. In the long term, this means that costs will only continue to rise for everyone, as the GA will continue to be able to slash our funding with impunity.

The College is in a difficult position here. Unquestionably, one of its great assets is its ability to be both affordable and great, and preserving the basic affordability of this institution is an essential long-term goal for the College. But under the GA’s current policy, our ability to remain an institution that is accessible to all is threatened.

Going forward, political pressure will be our only tool to reverse this trend. That pressure will never build as long as Virginia residents are shielded from the costs of their elected leaders’ decisions. They must pay now, or the College will be forced to pay in the long run.

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