Report: How one state wants to make universities more affordable

Audit of Virginia public institutions finds three major sources of increasing fees

Virginia lawmakers are scrutinizing the cost of college, and a new report recommends several tactics—including limiting mandatory athletic fees, directing state financial aid to students and schools most in need, and curbing campus construction—to make the state's universities more affordable.

The recommendations appear in the final of five reports by the state's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. Virginia's General Assembly requested the reports in an attempt to understand the 122% increase in in-state tuition and fees over the past ten years.

The state's 15 public, four-year institutions are second in the national average rate for six-year graduations. But they are also fifth in the highest average net cost: $18,530—and that has policymakers concerned. According to the report, high levels of decentralization in the system allowed schools to increase nonacademic services and grow athletic programs amid declining state funding.

The report is not an attempt to limit the 2005 Higher Education Restructuring Act, which gave the system's schools such autonomy, says Peter Blake, director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Rather, "it's more about monitoring the process than controlling the institutions," he says.

The report goes to the heart of a dilemma faced by many institutions today. Per-student state funding in Virginia has been on the decline, falling from $8,666 to $5,835 from 1998 to 2012. At the same time, enrollments have also declined nationwide, putting more pressure on universities to invest in recruiting prospective students through athletic programs and construction projects—but these measures often result in higher tuitions and increased public scrutiny.

Recommendations moving forward

The commission made several suggestions for how the state could make its public universities more affordable:         

  • Direct more state resources to schools that have a higher level of low-income students and lower levels of alternative funding, such as endowments and out-of-state undergraduate enrollments;
  • Award state-funded grants to low-and middle-class students only, currently about 8% go toward high-income students; and
  • Require an Assembly-mandated evaluation, completed within a year, of activities funded by mandatory fees—as the fees averaged 12.4% of tuition and fees in fiscal 2013.

The commission also reiterated the call that schools should prioritize academic over nonacademic and capital spending, noting that the "campus construction boom" is the primary driver of increased spending. Construction costs for nonacademic auxiliary facilities totaled $3.5 billion spending from 2002 to 2012, and in fiscal 2013, students paid an average of $689 to repay related debt (Kapsidelis, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 11/10).

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