Column: Closer Look at Higher Education in Virginia

Column: Closer Look at Higher Education in Virginia

My advice to young people has always been to go to any college you want as long as it is in Virginia. Whatever the criteria for choosing an institution to pursue higher learning, Virginia colleges and universities can meet the need. For liberal arts, engineering, science, performing arts, big or small, there is a school well-ranked nationally that will meet the criteria. While the community college system is organized statewide, all other institutions are individually planned and administered with a personality all their own. Taking a granddaughter visiting college campuses recently reminded me once again of the diversity and strength of our colleges and universities.

Behind the beautiful campuses and excellent program offerings there is a story that tells us that we need to move beyond bragging about what we have to making some fundamental changes that will strengthen an already great system. A study report on higher education in the Commonwealth written by the think-tank organization, Education Reform, entitled “Fair Funding and the Future of Higher Education in Virginia” issued earlier this month points the way to some needed reforms.

According to the report, “A state of de facto segregation by income and race exists in Virginia higher education. At some of Virginia’s wealthiest public institutions, barely one out of ten students come from low-income households …” The report concludes that “the sources of the unfair distribution of access to higher education and uneven outcomes for those who enroll in the Commonwealth’s colleges and universities are manifold, but unfair state funding creates significant drag on Virginia higher education’s power to transform lives, communities, and economies.”

In 2021 Virginia ranked 38th  lowest in the nation for appropriation per full-time equivalent student while the state is the 12th wealthiest in the nation. State funding covers just 48 percent of the cost of public higher education today while in 2001 it was covering 77 percent of the cost. Tuition is 4th highest in the nation among comprehensive institutions. George Mason University is the second best university in the state for increasing social mobility in the state, but it receives the smallest appropriation per student of any of the four-year institutions. 

The findings of the report are not new to those who follow higher education issues in the state. The State Council of Higher Education issued a report earlier this year, “Virginia Cost and Funding Need Study Report,” with many of the same findings and with a proposed conceptual framework to fund higher education in a way that makes it “affordable, equitable, and transformative.” It is important that future legislative sessions follow through with the findings of these two reports. As I stated from the beginning, Virginia has an excellent system of higher education, and it is from this base that important changes can be made to make it an even better system. Funding considerations need to go beyond how long the institution has been in existence, how many of their alumni are in the legislature, or where they are located. Performance standards that demonstrate that colleges are affordable, equitable, and transformative should drive funding decisions in the future.