The cost of tuition and fees in Virginia is spinning out of control, and how to make college degrees more affordable was the focus of a Richmond-area town hall meeting hosted by Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust.
The forum and its topic - the Price Tag of Higher Education, - drew a range of responses from state legislators, a leading business executive, and a college student and administrator, all of whom were passionate about finding meaningful answers.
It begins, said Dr. Mankola Abdullah, with how to pay for a degree.
"The number one predictor,” he said, “about whether or not a student will complete their degree is not whether they are academically qualified or motivated, but the income level of their parents, whether they have the resources to do so."
Dr. Abdullah added that because many students face difficulties paying for college their first year, it becomes increasingly harder in the years that follow due to increased institutional costs.
Dr. James Toscano, Partners’ president, said the alarming rise in tuition and fees at Virginia’s public colleges and universities is a dangerous gamble.
To which Senator Glen Sturtevant replied, "Certainly the state has its share to do with this issue," but one solution is a tuition freeze so there’s better transparency between paying parents and students, and the institutions. "These parents know going in that their student's tuition is going to be X number of dollars, but they don't know what it is going to be sophomore, or junior, or senior year, and that's a problem," Senator Sturtevant added.
Senator Siobhan Dunnavant also addressed how Virginia funds its public colleges and universities.
"We have a decentralized process in Virginia, meaning that we give a lot of freedom and autonomy to the institutions so they can design academic experiences. This means the state cannot control them," Senator Dunnavant said.
The obvious problem, she said, is that “the systems that we have to support colleges and universities doesn't seem to be getting us to where we want and doesn't seem to be rewarding those who perform well.”
But rising costs of tuition and fees are just the beginning of a large bill that students and parents have to pay out yearly. Other hefty costs, such as the price of textbooks, affect the students a great deal as well.
One answer, said Senator Jennifer McClellan, may be getting away from the thought that education is a certain number of hours sitting at a desk, after spending hours reading a textbook in order to take a test. “Education also includes practical experience out in the field," she said.
Senator McClellan added that if textbooks are required, one solution may be to make these resources more accessible to students. “Institutions should collaborate with one another in order to share resources across colleges and universities."
And whether anyone leading our public colleges has a chance to hear what the public thinks is another matter.
For now, there are no mandated periods of public comment before Virginia’s Boards of Visitors decide what students will pay for college, and Senator Amanda Chase thinks that’s wrong.
"Having a public comment period,” said Senator Chase, “is very important because sometimes, institutions and universities mean well, but are disconnected from what some real families are going through and the struggles they face with wanting to provide that college opportunity to their children.
“You visit schools and see things like workout rooms and think, well that’s great. But are we subsidizing that?”
"Even the student representative did not have an opportunity to comment,” said Virginia Commonwealth University student Nick Da Silva. "To say that students or faculty should not have a say and that they cannot meaningfully affect how institutions are operated removes the whole purpose of the university itself in the first place."
Closing comments from Brett Vassey gave light to the perspective that businesses have on rising college costs and debt.
In our community, Vassey said, "we realize that everyone needs college education to work in the manufacturing sector, but that does not necessarily mean a four-year degree.
"The manufacturing industry hopes to lower the cost of education by changing the expectations, taking elitism out of the stigma around attending four-year institutions and require universities to adopt competency-based education," he said. "Degrees are not enough. You have to prove your competency.”