Look closely at Virginia’s higher education

My advice to young people has always been to go to whatever college you want as long as it is in Virginia. Whatever the criteria for selecting an institution to pursue higher education, Virginia colleges and universities can meet the need. For liberal arts, engineering, science, and performing arts, big or small, there is a nationally well-rated school that meets the standards. While the community college system is organized at the state level, all other institutions are individually planned and managed with their own personality. A granddaughter’s visit to campus recently reminded me once again of the diversity and strength of our colleges and universities.

Behind the beautiful campus and excellent software offerings, there is a story that tells us we need to go beyond bragging to make some fundamental changes that will boost an already great system. A study report on Commonwealth higher education written by a think-tank organization, Education Reform, titled “Fair Financing and the Future of Virginia’s Higher Education” released earlier this month points the way to some of the needed reforms.

According to the report, “There is a case of de facto segregation by income and race in Virginia’s higher education. In some of Virginia’s richest public institutions, barely one in ten students comes from low-income families…” The report concludes that “the sources of the distribution are not equitable access to higher education and unequal outcomes for those who attend Commonwealth Colleges and Universities are manifold, but unfair government funding creates a significant burden on the ability of Virginia’s higher education to transform lives, communities, and economies.”

In 2021, Virginia ranked the 38th lowest in the state in terms of allocation to each full-time equivalent student while the state was the 12th most wealthy in the country. Government funding covers only 48 percent of the cost of public higher education today while it covered 77 percent of the cost in 2001. Tuition fees are the fourth highest in the country among comprehensive institutions. George Mason University is the second best university in the state for increased social mobility in the state, but receives the lowest per-student allocation of any of the four-year institutions.

The report’s findings are not new to those who follow higher education issues in the state. The State Board of Higher Education released a report earlier this year, “Virginia’s Cost and Funding Needs Study Report,” with many of the same findings and a proposed conceptual framework for financing higher education in a way that makes it “affordable, equitable, and transformative.” It is important that future legislative sessions follow up on the findings of these two reports. As I mentioned from the beginning, Virginia has an excellent system of higher education, and from this base important changes can be made to make it a better system. Funding considerations should go beyond the duration of the institution’s existence, the number of its alumni in the legislature, or where they are located. Performance standards that demonstrate that colleges are affordable, equitable, and transformative should drive future funding decisions.

Leave a Comment