Virginia’s public colleges and universities have a big P.R. problem. Eighty-eight percent of Virginia voters think they are too expensive, according to a poll released this morning, and three quarters say they should not be allowed to increase tuition faster than the cost of living.
Furthermore, a large majority of voters said they want greater transparency into university budgets, and responded that university trustees should put the interests of students, families and taxpayers before the ambitions of university administrators.
The poll of 600 registered voters was conducted in early January by Public Opinion Strategies and Lake Research Partners. The underwriter was Partners 4 Affordable Excellence @ EDU, a sponsor of this blog. Founded in response to the rising cost of college attendance, the organization’s mission is to bring about change at America’s premier public research universities “in ways that maintain or enhance academic excellence and result in affordable tuition.”
Traditionally, the public policy debate in Virginia over higher-ed affordability and accessibility has revolved around the level of financial aid provided by state government. Universities defend higher tuitions as a justifiable response to reductions in state support. A recent report to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) found that cuts accounted for about half the increase in tuition over the past 20 years and about 14% of the total Cost of Attendance (which encompasses student fees, room, board and other costs as well as tuition).
Re-framing the debate, the Partners poll focused on policies within the control of universities, such as the percentage out-of-state students, financial aid, administrative waste, the prestige arms race, and, specifically, the University of Virginia’s accumulation of $2.2 billion in “unspent money” in its Strategic Investment Fund. (See poll results and pollsters’ commentary here.)
“This is the first in-depth look at voters’ views on an issue of critical importance to the state’s economic well-being,” said James V. Koch, president of Partners 4 Affordable Excellence and a former president of Old Dominion University. “When it comes to economic growth, Virginia has trailed the nation for the last six years. How we change the narrative can’t be viewed in a vacuum, and making higher education more affordable can lead to more jobs and improve Virginia’s economic vitality.”
“This poll confirms what many of us have thought for years — college costs are out of control and there is a clear link between affordability and economic success of every Virginia family,” said Helen Dragas, Partners board chair and former rector of the University of Virginia.
While the out-of-control escalation of the Cost of Attendance is not on a par with K-12 education, job creation and even traffic congestion among voter’s top concerns, it is “a strong second-tier priority” with 23% of those polled ranking it No. 1 or No. 2, the pollsters concluded. That scoring placed college affordability somewhat lower than crime & drugs but significantly higher than the environment, recreation areas & open space.
On the positive side, 84% of voters classified Virginia higher-ed institutions as “among the best” in the country. On the other hand 75% described them as too expensive.
The poll also found strong support for requiring at least 75% of the state’s undergraduate students be Virginia residents. Sixty percent of voters agreed with that proposition. Although Republicans were most likely to agree (71%), a majority of independents (61%) and Democrats (51%) went along as well. That finding can be construed as good news for Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield, who has submitted a bill, HB 1410, this session that would require 75% of the undergraduates at all but three state universities to be comprised of Virginians. If enacted, the bill would impact the three institutions with out-of-state enrollments exceeding 25%: the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, and James Madison University.
By a narrower margin (53% to 44%), voters said that colleges and universities should be allowed to provide financial aid to out-of-state students. That finding seemingly conflicts with Albo’s proposal in HB 1410 to forbid the tuition of Virginia students to be applied to out-of-state financial aid, and even caps the use of out-of-state revenue for that purpose to 5%.
Meanwhile, Republican candidate for Governor Ed Gillespie has made college tuition a campaign issue. “Constant tuition hikes and rampant spending are making college increasingly unaffordable to too many Virginians, and we have to fix that,” he said last week. ““Virginia’s public colleges and universities — all of which are governed by boards appointed by the governor — must become more responsive to the needs of students and parents and taxpayers and less responsive to teachers, faculties and administrations.”
The poll delved into university governance issues as well. One question asked whether Boards of Trustees should prioritize the goal of making Virginia institutions more highly ranked in comparison to other colleges and universities or more accountable to taxpayers, students and parents. Seventy-eight percent of voters prioritized the latter.
By large margins, voters favor greater transparency of public college and university budgets and proceedings. Eighty-six percent said that board meetings to discuss tuition and policy should be “open to the public.” Eighty percent answered that the records and documents of university presidents should be held to the same standards as those of other employees. And 90% agreed that higher ed institutions should be required to “regularly and fully account for all spent and unspent funds.”
Finally, the poll addressed an issue that roiled Virginia politics for several months last year: the creation of the University of Virginia’s $2.2 billion Strategic Investment Fund. Partners 4 Affordable Excellence Chair Dragas first publicized the existence of the fund, setting off a huge controversy over how UVa had accumulated the sum without the public and General Assembly knowing of it, even as the board pleaded poverty to the legislature and raised in-state tuition 74%.
Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they favored applying the funds to lowering tuition and making room for more in-state students, as opposed to investing in technology, lab equipment and faculty recruitment. Likewise 73% said that they were bothered “a lot” by the board’s action to raise tuition 74% and the fact that it “never fully disclosed” the amount to Virginia lawmakers and taxpayers.
It is important to note, however, that only 16% of those polled had heard about UVa’s discretionary spending fund, and, therefore, were dependent upon the pollsters’ description of the controversy.
Bacon’s bottom line: I expect that defenders of the educational status quo will criticize the way Partners has framed the issues and worded its questions. And I have little doubt that a similar poll conducted by Virginia colleges and universities would yield somewhat different results. However, the big story here seems undeniable: that Virginians are distressed by the runaway Cost of Attendance at Virginia institutions of higher ed, and they are unhappy how boards of trustees have prioritized institutional prestige over affordability and access.
Legislators across the partisan divide are sensing this discontent, and we can expect more legislation like Albo’s to rein in the universities. One can cringe at the idea of lawmakers micro-managing universities from Richmond, but at the end of the day, university administrators and boards brought the problem upon themselves by exploiting students and parents to fund their institutional ambitions.There are currently no comments highlighted.