The College isn’t alone in struggling to stay great and public

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October 16, 2009

1:54 AM

College of William and Mary President Taylor Reveley’s “State of the University” address, recently e-mailed to students, reads like most such addresses. It congratulates us on our successes, strokes our egos, and gently points out areas that could be improved. Toward the end, though, he becomes, in his words, “deadly serious.” There is a perceptible shift in tone as he talks about our finances.

He states in no uncertain terms that, “the financial model that served the College reasonably well since 1906, when William and Mary became a public school, no longer works.” This financial model, of course, is the base upon which public education was built: state funding.
The idea here, which we are all familiar with, is that the state shares in the cost of running universities and, in turn, tuition is much lower than that of a private institution. Currently, this model is simply impossible for the College and many other public schools.

The University of Colorado at Boulder is a prime example of the infeasibility of a grea, public school. Not many schools have been as hard hit as CU-Boulder. Colorado, like Virginia, is forced by law to balance its budget under an act called the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights. Therefore, CU-Boulder saw a precipitous drop in state funding due to the recession. They now receive only about 7 percent of their budget from the state.
However, Colorado does not have the authority to set its own tuition. Consequently, they have not been able to raise tuition to offset their losses.The politicians who need to enact a change in tuition are too afraid of their constituencies to make such a bold move. The end result is a huge shortfall in the university’s budget.

As a result, CU-Boulder has had to make some hard choices. Salary reductions and hiring freezes were unavoidable. Class sizes and student-to-faculty ratios will suffer. The university has even begun to charge students taking classes in more costly departments substantially more money to attend. Business majors and engineering majors, for example, must pay 60 percent and 38 percent, respectively, above normal tuition. This drives students out of these important and profitable majors or out of the school altogether.

Services at the library have been scaled back dramatically. The university rerquires that teachers empty their own office garbage cans and has stopped cleaning outside windows. To its credit, CU-Boulder is still a well-regarded school, but with its finances in their current state, their prestige does not seem sustainable.
It is tempting to say that these measures will be temporary and funding will increase when the economy rebounds, but this is not likely. As the cost of health care, correctional facilities, elementary and secondary education continue to grow there is simply not enough money to fund public universities at levels anywhere near those of the past. The slow decline will continue until universities such as the College or CU-Boulder will receive basically no funding from the state.

We have to ask ourselves: At what point are we still a public university?

In name, we are likely to continue to be public; to my knowledge, there has never been a public school that became private. CU-Boulder’s president declared there will be no move toward privatization; but what will a public university without state funds look like?

If we are to remain competitive, tuition must increase. As out of state tuition approaches private levels and state support falls, the increases are likely to fall on Virginians. Some public schools, such as Miami University of Ohio, have eliminated the distinction between in-state and out-of-state tuition entirely. It is too early to predict what the College will look like five or ten years down the road, but it may well be a very different place.

E-mail Ed Innace at [email protected]

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