U.Va. tuition, cost increases are unsustainable

Published 10:39 am Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors was asked again last week to raise tuition at a level roughly triple the rate of inflation, and it said yes.

Two of my colleagues joined me in opposing what has become a rite of spring: seeking approval for what we believe are unsustainable cost increases for students and parents. Like families across the commonwealth, we questioned how these dollars will be spent and why we continue on a course that eventually will make a U.Va. education completely unaffordable for some of Virginia’s most gifted students.

Most of the windfall will pay for hefty salary increases for faculty and staff and augment generous retirement and health benefits that will now approach 40 percent of base salaries for most full-time university employees.

Some will go toward the band-aid of financial aid that cannot keep up with the growing affordability gap. And then there are funds targeted to improve “the student experience,” but without benchmarks to measure if they will make a difference.

Such extravagance flies in the face of reality.

U.Va. tuition more than doubled in a decade, while median family incomes adjusted for inflation in Virginia fell about 5 percent in the last reportable four years.

That alone makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to justify asking Virginians who are earning less to pay faculty and administrators so much more.

But a much larger principle is at stake and has nothing to do with budgets, bureaucracies or counting widgets. The essence of the American dream is that with hard work and a great education, everyone can elevate his or her economic and intellectual prospects and become better prepared to grow, prosper and contribute to society.

Today, that same dream inspires many Virginia families to take on massive debt, and especially to secure a prestigious degree from this university.

Indeed, Virginia’s historic reputation has allowed us over time to charge more — probably a lot more — to attend Mr. Jefferson’s university.

But just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

When the price of admission to a public university is too daunting or just plain impossible, diversity in all its forms suffers, and excellence becomes attainable only for the elite.

Just as disconcerting, the latest information indicates that 50 percent of recent U.Va. graduates are under- or unemployed. Their debt drags down our economy and delays or denies them that first car, home or business, and reverberates and multiplies as it becomes a financial albatross. And we don’t even have hard facts on the impacts of second mortgages assumed by parents.

At the same time, the much-bemoaned decline in state funding has ceased and should no longer excuse the call for ever-higher tuition. Despite a projected increase of more than 8 percent in state funding, Virginia’s administrators still sought a 5.4 percent tuition increase for the next academic year.

On that point, it’s disingenuous to claim that the commonwealth funds only a single-digit fraction of the university’s budget. The objective State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) calculates the state contribution, correctly excluding the university’s medical center and other nonacademic enterprises such as athletics. By contrast, it reports that taxpayer dollars — your money and mine — provide almost half of the cost of an undergraduate education.

Nor should we ever forget the billions of dollars that Virginia taxpayers have invested in buildings and land over the past 200 years.

We can do better.

Our new governor should appoint university leaders who will relentlessly pursue the promise of higher education with broad access and affordable excellence, and avoid the temptation to turn a public institution into the academic version of a gated community where assets trump abilities.

Trustees should recommit to their fiduciary duty to represent the commonwealth. We owe our citizens much more than mountains of debt for a molehill of hope.

Working together, we should develop new approaches to improve outcomes and lower costs.

SCHEV is beginning to cultivate fresh ideas from here and around the country, and should coordinate meaningful and substantive efforts at campuses across the state to test and implement emerging best practices.

At the same time, parents and students alike should organize to be more demanding consumers, require detailed data about how their tuition dollars are spent, question investments that don’t improve learning and advocate against using a tuition hike as the default to balance every short-term budget.

The University of Virginia, with its founding vision of access for all, should lead Virginia out of higher education’s soaring expense patterns while elevating academic quality.

Finally — and no matter how well-meaning our intentions — citizens should judge us by our actions and results as we work to ensure that the dream of receiving a world-class education at the university remains alive for more of Virginia’s children.

Mr. Jefferson would have demanded nothing less. And neither should we.

HELEN E. DRAGAS is a member and former rector of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, and a former member of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Contact her at HDragas@dragas.com. This column first appeared in The Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reprinted with permission.