Budget battering ram

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January 31, 2011

11:26 PM

Based on his newly announced K-12 initiative in response to recent mandates directed at public universities, it looked for a while like education reform was at the top of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s new year’s resolutions. Less optimistically for observers at the College of William and Mary, that reform includes slashing the state funding of a major Virginia college.

In reaction to Virginia Commonwealth University’s decision to raise tuition to cover a $42-million budget shortfall, McDonnell announced he would cut the university’s state funding by $17 million in order to dissuade “future tuition increases.” The point McDonnell is attempting to make is simple: prevent universities from raising tuition to cover financial mismanagement. This action penalizes the average VCU student, asserts an uncomfortable amount of authority over public universities and fails to address the fundamental question of eternally shrinking college budgets.

We don’t wish to defend VCU’s decision — at least not entirely. The budget shortfall the university faced was, at least to some degree, a result of fiscally irresponsible behavior. But any university, public or private, uses tuition increases to cover its increased cost of operation in a given semester. It is one of the only tools a college has at its disposal to fill any potential gaps in the budget, especially in light of the dramatic reduction of state funding felt by many of Virginia’s public universities.

McDonnell’s decision does not negate that tuition hike; in fact, it means students will be paying 24 percent more in tuition for only half of the benefit. Instead of capping tuition or requiring an audit of VCU’s budget to discover if shortfalls could be mitigated, McDonnell simply chose to penalize VCU’s students.

At the start of the year, McDonnell also created incentives targeted toward other universities, like the University of Virginia, to encourage them to enroll more students in order to receive increased funding.
The moral in both these stories seem the same: decisions regarding the student body size and tuition at public universities, decisions that were till now left largely to individual universities’ Boards of Visitors, must comply with the current governor’s desires, or risk drastically reduced funding.

The implications for the College, especially its Board of Visitors, are immediate: Remain alert for any potential budget shortfall, because your available means to reconciling that shortfall are now drastically limited.

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