As I’m sure you’re already aware, last weekend was the celebration of the 320th birthday of the College of William and Mary. As part of the festivities, the 24th chancellor of the College and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech highlighting the challenges of finding adequate funding for higher education institutions such as the College. He emphasized the need to fund institutions that provide citizens with the skills necessary to deal with an increasingly technological and globalized world. In a period of skyrocketing tuition costs and dwindling state funding, however, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for institutions such as the College to prepare students for rapidly changing socioeconomic conditions. As Gates mentioned in his speech, “at some of the nation’s most prominent public universities, such as William and Mary and the University of Virginia, state funding contributes less than 15 percent of university operating support.”
If the College were to become a private institution — as many out-of-state students wish it to be — and the commonwealth became a shareholder in the College, Virginia would be a minority stakeholder. The commonwealth demands a much larger say in the College’s strategic direction than its current level of financial contributions warrant. Furthermore, the commonwealth benefits from the great reputation the College has across the nation. The College produces highly qualified individuals sought after by many businesses, which in turn incentivizes burgeoning industries to locate in Virginia, bringing the state an increased level of economic activity. In essence, the state reaps all of the benefits from having input regarding the operations of an elite higher education institution while providing a negligible amount of support in return.
Thus, faced with dwindling benefits from state governments, many schools rely on infusions of capital from the federal government. Based on last week’s State of the Union, however, this source of funding could be drying up as well. President Barack Obama has called for an end to the federal government’s subsidization of the soaring cost of higher education. While he recognizes the necessity of higher education as a means to a secure economic future for most Americans, he also wants to reform the Higher Education Act to require that funding be based upon value. In essence, Obama is arguing that federal infusions of capital to higher education institutions should be based upon an evaluation of both quality and price. The need to address skyrocketing tuition is a view held by most Americans — a new Gallup poll shows that 59 percent of citizens strongly agree that colleges should simply lower the tuition they charge. This is an area where I feel the College could benefit greatly. The College offers a great value package for in-state students, combining a relatively low tuition rate with top-tier undergraduate teaching. The College should most definitely consider pursuing this “value-funding” if indeed the Higher Education Act is amended. As we’ve been slowly admitting a bigger and bigger class of students each year, our facilities are simply running over their intended capacity. The College is in desperate need of major investments in an expansion of many facilities: housing, academic buildings and parking, just to name a few.
The College’s level of funding is unsustainable. If we hope to continue our legacy of high-quality education that prepares students to address the world’s pressing needs, we must work with government and private citizens to secure the funding necessary to ensure our long-term viability. Our endowment is sitting at less than half a billion dollars. While that may seem like a good chunk of cash, it pales in comparison to institutions of similar quality. Rather than seeing my opinion as a diatribe, I hope everyone reading this is moved to take action and collaborate with all interested parties to ensure that the College stays as the excellent higher education institution I sincerely believe it to be.
Email Derek Bluemling at firstname.lastname@example.org.