Fund Higher Education Adequately

Two things are obvious: the system of higher education needs more money, and we need to avoid wasting the money we have.

My proposition is simple: give the colleges and universities funding at the national median and we will give Virginians the best system of higher education in the nation. The cost is high: an annual appropriations increase of about $220 million. But it can be done, if there is a will to do it.

Money cannot ensure quality, but quality costs money. Two rough tests of the adequacy of Virginia's support for higher education are to compare that support against our own ability to pay and against the support provided by other states to their colleges and universities. The results are clear: we have the 14th highest per capita income in the nation and the 44th worst state funding for higher education. If it has the will to do so, there is no reason why Virginia cannot provide funding for its colleges and universities at least at the national median of the states.

But colleges and universities should not get more money simply because they want it, or just to keep up with the Joneses. Funding at the national median should be a state commitment for those institutions whose students progress to their degrees in satisfactory numbers and at satisfactory rates while demonstrating acceptable levels of competence. Each institution's standards should be different, perhaps based on comparisons to benchmark institutions throughout the nation. But every institution should have explicit, public standards and be able to demonstrate that its students meet them. The Council and the institutions already are cooperating to survey graduates' satisfaction with their educations and employers' satisfaction with the graduates. These indicators and others should be useful in deciding upon strategic investments in the colleges and universities.

Our best defense against low-quality educational programs, whether offered electronically or by non-Virginia institutions operating here, will be solid evidence that ours are better. Balancing price and convenience against some programs of unknown or dubious quality that may be offered by Virginia institutions, I suspect that many students now judge the programs of some non-state institutions to be good enough. That is why a "shadow university" equivalent in size to James Madison already exists in Virginia, composed of students enrolled in the various institutions from outside the state that offer courses and programs here. As competition intensifies because of electronic delivery, we need better evidence that our programs are good investments.

We need more general fund support for Virginia's colleges and universities. But we also need a rational policy about tuition and fee revenue. Most of the discussion about tuition in Virginia seems to be premised on the assumption that it suddenly became very high in the early part of the 1990s. This is simply not true. Virginia has been a high-tuition state for at least two decades. We simply got too high as a result of the recession several years ago. While a two-year moratorium on tuition increases was a good idea to help bring the price of education back in line with the per capita income of Virginians, our pricing decisions in the future should reflect individual institutional circumstances, the state's economic condition, and the national rate of inflation.

Virginia has provided broad access to higher education for more than three decades while at the same time pricing that education at levels that are high but nonetheless appear to have been affordable until the recession of the early 1990s. Its sizeable program of need-based student financial aid has supplemented federal financial aid programs to ensure access for needy students. That access will be jeopardized by need-blind tuition discounts or tax credits. Virginia cannot afford to give money to students who don't need it.

The capital needs of Virginia higher education also have to be met, and there should be a stream of predictable funds with which to do so. Given the self-imposed limitations on Virginia's debt capacity, the best way to create a predictable revenue source is to re-dedicate lottery revenues to capital outlay.

The lottery revenues were not originally intended to be part of Virginia's general operating revenues. Moving them back to capital outlay would be difficult but, again, could be done. If, as a result, Virginia needs additional tax revenue to provide its citizens with the services they need and want, responsible elected public officials will make that case to the people.

I do not think Virginia higher education wastes much money, but I do think it wastes some. Most notably, institutions are building too many remote sites with brick and mortar while electronic networks are being developed that will make them irrelevant. Some new campuses and centers may be needed, but many are desperate attempts to stimulate economic growth, or simply marketing mistakes. Many will be obsolescent before they leave the architect's drawing board.

Leave Politics at the Door

Twenty Years of Higher Education in Virginia