Worthy Cause, Wrong Target

Justin Moore talks to Jennifer Moon, legislative assistant to Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester. Photo credit: Capital News Service

The Capital News Service has published an article on how the higher ed lobby is working state legislators at the General Assembly. The report describes Virginia Commonwealth University student Justin Moore, a clean-cut, well-dressed young man, meeting with a legislative assistant to Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester.

Representatives like Moore came armed with statistics they handed out to legislators, the article says. “From 2008 to 2017, they said, spending per student in Virginia decreased by $1,069, putting a greater financial burden on students.”

These young people are very well intentioned, and they’re using data that someone has provided them. Exactly who has organized this effort and supplied talking points to the students is unclear in this case. The data sounds about right, and I’ll accept the fact that the number is accurate. But it is largely meaningless without context.

Here’s the context: According to State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) data (found here), the average cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board) across all public four-year Virginia institutions of higher education for undergraduate students was $14,683 in the 2007-2008 school year. Adjusting for inflation, that’s $17,358 in today’s dollars. Today the cost of attendance is $22,987.

Let me do the math for you: Adjusting for inflation, an undergraduate’s cost of attending a four-year college increased $5,629 over the decade. If reductions in state support for higher education amounted to $1,069, it accounted for about 19% of the total increased cost of attending college.

Even if we look at tuition only, the average cost rose from $4,761 ($5,560 in inflation-adjusted dollars) to $8,614, or $3,054. Thus, cuts in state support accounted for a little more than a third of the tuition increase over this period. You can get different results if you compare different periods — but these were the years that advocates of increased state spending chose themselves.

However you slice and dice the numbers, state cutbacks in support to higher-ed account for only a fraction of tuition inflation and cannot begin to explain all the inflation in fees, room, and board. To be sure, the General Assembly has not helped the cause of college access and affordability, and earnest students like Justin Moore are more likely to land a one-on-one audience with a legislative aide than they are with presidents of their universities. But perhaps in seeking sympathy for their plight they also should petition administrators who make craft university budgets and the boards of trustees that rubber stamp them.

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4 responses to “Worthy Cause, Wrong Target

  1. Excellent reporting/opining.
    Thank you.

  2. Having put four kids through college a while back, I know about these tuition increases. And I applaud your basic point: cuts in State aid for higher education are not the bulk of the problem. But State aid has been cut. Not just held flat while tuition increased, but actually cut. Let’s not distract from the significance of that by pointing to other, bigger financial pressures on parents. It comes down to this: is higher education something the State should continue to invest in as it always has; is this a duty of the State? Or should Virginia abandon the field to private educational institutions, turning the components of the Nation’s finest public higher education system loose to fend for themselves in the marketplace? Because that’s the path we are headed down now in Virginia.

    • Right. There are two layers to this discussion: (1) How much should the state contribute to higher education (and how much can it afford to contribute), and (2) what can colleges and universities themselves do to keep college more affordable?

      The public-policy debate in Virginia has focused mainly on the first question, which assigns primary responsibility to state government. Insofar as it has focused on the second, debate has framed the issue as making college affordable for lower-income Virginians by means of financial aid. With a few exceptions, the discussion has paid little attention to correcting the underlying forces that drive tuition, fees, room, and board ever higher for the middle class.

  3. Higher ed has, in the face of funding cuts from one source (state), continued to raise its price; the only way it could do this was having the assurance that the money would come from other sources. Most organizations, when faced with decreased income, scramble to find a way to reduce expenses. I think that the problem is exactly that simple: higher ed has defied usual economics because the market is distorted by easy borrowing and very expandable demand.

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