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Would Higher Education be Better Off?

If Northern Virginia were to secede, the landscape of higher education would be very different and the change receives mixed reviews from those involved.

In-state students would only have the choice of George Mason University, which has campuses in Arlington, Fairfax and Manassas, or Northern Virginia Community College, with campuses in Alexandria, Manassas, Sterling and in Annandale.

At the community college, funding would become a major issue and the school would be cut-off from other community colleges.

“We are one of 23 community colleges in the Virginia Community College System. That would make us very isolated,” said Charlotte Wilhelmi, director of college marketing and public affairs at NVCC. “We would be orphaned or strangers in a new land.”

At GMU, the change would result in a financial windfall even if there is no change in the current financial support percentages.

“If Northern Virginia as a state were to allocate the same percentage of revenue to the state colleges and universities as we get now from the Commonwealth of Virginia, we would get more money,” said Tom Hennessey, GMU chief of staff. “By definition, we would be funded significantly more.”

WILHELMI said while NVCC is one of 23 community colleges in the state, it accounts for one-third of the student enrollment. Currently, a majority of its funding comes from the state, with tuition second and local contributions third.

She said she sees problems for all the state agencies, if Northern Virginia were to secede, because a whole new funding source would have to be established.

“The big question would be the money,” Wilhelmi said. “The monetary component would be the largest issue.”

On the bright side, she said a split would allow the college to be more flexible and responsive to its students.

“Any time you’re independent, you have the ability to respond more quickly to your students and react to the local climate.”

CONVERSELY, GMU already knows were to spend the extra money officials see coming their way as a result of splitting from the state of Virginia.

Hennessey said the college would reduce class size to less than 20 students for undergraduate classes. The reduction in class size means an increase in faculty.

The university would make an “enormous” contribution to the graduate assistance program. It would increase the number of graduate assistants, he said. For example, Virginia Tech has about 1,500 graduate students and UVA has about 1,200 graduate students assisting professors with research projects or in class compared to GMU’s 500.

The school would also set aside a “significant” amount of money for tuition assistance and offer more scholarships to students across the country.

GMU would also be able to create buildings devoted to specific fields and research, such as a center for information technology research on its Fairfax campus, a center for policy and law research in Arlington and a center for bio-defense in Prince William.

THE SPLIT will also have an impact on enrollment and therefore tuition. GMU’s enrollment consists of 88 percent of in-state residents. Of that 88 percent, about 69 percent come from Northern Virginia. The remainder of those students would now be considered out-of-state residents and subject to the higher tuition costs.

Hennessey said the out-of-student residents pay what amounts to 140 percent of what it costs to educate them, while the in-state only pay 65 percent. According to the GMU Web site, out-of-state tuition is $12,612 per year, not including room and board. The in-state residents pay $3,768 per year.

The converse also applies, however, should a high school graduate wish to attend UVA, Virginia Tech, William and Mary or any other Virginia state university or college.

“The biggest loss would be the hit Northern Virginia parents would have to pay in out-of-state tuition for their kids to go to colleges and universities downstate. Of course, the much higher fees charged would be wonderful for Virginia higher education,” said Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-45).

But Hennessey predicts the other colleges would see a decrease in enrollment as a result of a split.

“There would be extreme competition between the higher education facilities in Northern Virginia and that which remained in Virginia,” Hennessey said. “These schools will probably see a decrease in student population when everyone sees how well GMU is being funded.”