Virginia has one of the highest average college tuition rates in the country, and while graduates in the Commonwealth may leave with a degree, they’re also taking on an average of 30,000 in student debt.
Those realities and other topics came to the fore as a panel of legislators, educators and nonprofit administrators discussed this unsustainable situation at a town hall forum in Virginia Beach called The Price Tag of Higher Ed hosted by Partners for College Affordability & Public Trust.
“How we consume information is different than it used to be, as is how we consume entertainment,” Virginia Delegate Jason Miyares said. “But two areas that have not adapted are government and higher education. We are looking at $1.5 trillion in student debt, and that’s the next bubble that is going to burst.”
As more graduates leave college with tens of thousands of dollars in loans to repay, they delay buying homes, starting families, even buying cars. Miyares referred to a constituent who was unable to create jobs for his small business because his outstanding student loan debt prevented him from establishing a line of credit.
Panelists also discussed several issues that have caused the sharp increase in college tuition, fees and other related expenses, and talked about what must change.
Jeff Ainslie, president of sales, operation and finance for a homebuilding company and a former university trustee, said too many colleges are still using the same approach to higher education that they created 100 years ago. As a result, today’s teens have a hard time making the transition from high school to college, and those who do often graduate with enormous debt and skills that do not relate in the contemporary job market.
“At some point we need to step off and do something different,” he said. “That’s not to say that a four-year degree is the wrong thing to pursue. But apparently college right after high school is not the right option for 60 percent of our high school graduates.”
State Senator Bill DeSteph said boards that run our state’s public universities must also start giving students, parents and other citizens more input into how the schools are operated. Accountability, he said, is critical to fixing the current situation.
“Public universities are a department of the state,” DeSteph said, but they’re also billion-dollar businesses. “We need to get control and pull the reins in. It’s a big job, but one step at a time we need to get the cost of tuition under control.”
Dr. Ellen Neufeldt, vice president for student engagement and enrollment services at Old Dominion University, said ODU has made it a priority to keep tuition manageable. In that regard, between 2001 and 2017, tuition at ODU and James Madison increased at a much lower rate than at most other Virginia colleges.
Neufeldt said schools must recognize how the state of higher education affects the Commonwealth’s economy. She said schools are “investing in our future” when they keep college accessible and offer courses of study that relate to today’s job market, such as degrees in cyber fields.
“We have to strive to meet the needs of the workforce and of our students,” she said. “We can’t be afraid to try new programs that meet those needs. In fact, we should take pride in that, and make sure that affordability is part of the plan.”
Lynn Hattery, executive director of the nonprofit Funding the Future, suggested that one way for public colleges to keep costs in line would involve a “pay-for-performance” system, where state funding would be directly tied to each school’s results using metrics such as graduation rates, job placement and student satisfaction.
“Benjamin Franklin said investing in knowledge pays the greatest dividends,” Hattery said. “I’m not a financial planner – I’m an attorney by trade, and the executive director of a non-profit. But I believe in ‘pay for performance.’ We have a mission, and at the end of a cycle, our payment is based on reporting back on how well we did. That’s how it works.”
Jovanny Torres, student government association president at Tidewater Community College, brought a student’s perspective about topics like the escalating cost of textbooks and the need for students to seek an active voice in the way their schools are run.
“Students need to know they have a voice,” Torres said. “They need to know they can be heard.”
Speaking to the future of higher education in Virginia, DeSteph predicted that the next 20 years would bring changes that are “more revolutionary than evolutionary.” With more colleges offering classes online, he sees fewer traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms and more opportunities designed to meet the needs today’s students.
Davis praised TCC for its program guaranteeing jobs to students who complete specific vocational courses of study and reiterated the idea that “it is outdated thinking to believe you can’t be successful without a four-year degree.”
As the Commonwealth works to improve and update its system of higher education, Davis said all citizens would benefit. “If our students are moving in to well-paying jobs and if they are not loaded with loan debt, that will influence more businesses to come here, and that helps our economy,” he said.
“Some states are doing well with this. Virginia can do better.”