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June 10, 2015

Higher Ed Increasingly Out of Reach


The continued erosion of state support is leading to higher tuition at Virginia public colleges and threatening the ability of many residents to get the education they need to compete in the global economy.

Virginia’s spending per student on higher education is down about 25 percent since the recession, when adjusted for inflation. That’s according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And the slight increase in spending over the last year is far from enough to turn the trend around.

This is a real problem.

The recession severely reduced the amount of money Virginia had to invest in critical services. And instead of taking a balanced approach to meeting state needs that would have included significant new revenue, the state chose to rely almost entirely on cuts and gimmicks that continue to dampen the state’s economic recovery.

The substantial reduction in state support for higher education had to be made up somewhere; so many of Virginia’s public colleges and universities raised tuition. Since 2008, the average cost to attend a 4-year public university in Virginia is up  by more than a third, adjusted for inflation.

Over the past four decades, average tuition at a public university in the United States has more than doubled, adjusted for inflation. Median household income, meanwhile, remained just about flat in that period, rising by just 5 percent. So it’s no surprise that the resulting sticker shock to get a degree deters students from enrolling in college.

This dramatic spike in the cost of higher education creates serious hurdles for many students and families struggling in our stagnant economy. Virginia needs highly skilled workers to remain competitive in a global economy, and college is essential for that to happen.  

Over the past seven years, federal financial aid has increased by more than $1,710 for qualifying students nationwide to help reduce the cost of education, but this additional help has not been enough to keep up with tuition increases.

For many students, enrolling in college means having to borrow money and potentially finishing their education deep in debt. In Virginia, 60 percent of in-state students in four-year public institutions graduated with debt in 2013. And on average, these students owed more than $25,400. This means that when students graduate they have less money to spend, which is not good for the economy.

Making it harder to go to college does not help students and families get the right skills and training that employers need. The recession is well behind us, but Virginia continues to deal with a significant gap between the resources it has and what it takes to meet growing public needs. It’s time for elected officials to help people go to college and get the skills and training required for our modern economy. Putting too much of the burden onto each student and his or her family is a big step backwards that we will pay for far into the future.

–Jeff Connor-Naylor, Program Director

The Commonwealth Institute

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