How do you define affordability?
As students across the country face skyrocketing college costs and the crisis of student loan debt, a version of the question lingered in the air during a recent meeting of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. It’s one that’s been asked in many ways and many times before, but remains unanswered.
As the members of Virginia’s highest coordinating body for higher education convened at Richard Bland College, perhaps the more significant question was the one left unacknowledged: Is higher education affordable in Virginia?
Needless to say, rising college costs and student loan debt are prominent issues attracting widespread national attention.
According to a recent report, Virginia ranks as America’s ninth-worst state for affordability. On average, families are spending 31.6 percent of household income to finance college in Virginia. . . even after financial aid is taken into account.[i]
Yet despite these front-of-mind concerns for students and their families, college affordability is alarmingly understated within the higher education community. SCHEV’s members reflected that reality as, instead, they focused on using increased out-of-state enrollment to generate higher revenue streams.
Even as total educational revenue in Virginia hits historic highs[ii], colleges and universities remain undeterred in their pursuit of tuition and fee hikes that fall on the often already burdened shoulders of students and their families. Between 2005 and 2016, the average published tuition and fees charged at a Virginia four-year public institution increased 3.3 times as fast as Virginia median household income.[iii]
While many college administrators often point to declines in state funding to justify tuition hikes, they fail to mention that state funding is on the uptick and many other factors that have contributed to rising college costs... like run-away institutional spending.
To be sure, increasing out-of-state enrollments may enable Virginia’s colleges and universities to increase revenue without relying solely on in-state tuition and fee increases. But that tactic does little to fully address higher education’s affordability problem and worse it squeezes valuable in-state slots for Virginians who already see shrinking opportunity.
And what’s really driving the cost of higher education?
When SCHEV member Bill Murray interrupted a presentation on The Virginia Plan to ask about cost drivers, you could have heard a pin drop as he pointed out the elephant in the room. . . The conversation that followed was arguably the most meaningful discussion of the entire meeting. During this discussion, SCHEV Executive Director Peter Blake referred to maintenance and healthcare costs, while Chairman Heywood Fralin mentioned faculty salaries at research institutions, rightly observed that this is “not uniquely a Virginia problem.”
Another significant question centered on the consequences of rising college costs on enrollment. Where, asked Marge Connelly, is the “tipping point,” at which college becomes so costly and unaffordable that aspiring students simply don’t enroll.
Lacking existing analyses and relevant information, the conversation on cost drivers and affordability was sadly cut short, but asking these kinds of questions is very much a step in the right direction.
Luckily, work being done by SCHEV’s Ad Hoc Committee on Data and Policy ought to shed some light. Formed to support the goals of The Virginia Plan for Higher Education- the first of which is to provide affordable access for all - the committee has focused on the development of a data and policy blueprint.
How should we use the data we have more effectively to meet the needs of the Council and the Commonwealth?
That question alone, one of several listed in its inaugural meeting agenda, is key as SCHEV works to expand its audience and reach out to a much larger universe. (During a recent committee meeting, members discussed SCHEV’s website and interactive ways other states present information to consumers.)
By increasing data transparency and accessibility - especially related to finances, productivity, and student outcomes - SCHEV can undoubtedly play an important role as students and parents make more informed decisions about a higher education
As Virginia’s students and families continue to feel the financial strain from rising college costs, it’s the responsibility of organizations like SCHEV to ask these kinds of questions. . . and seek answers.
Partners looks forward to participating in this ongoing discussion with SCHEV about how to promote affordability, accountability, and transparency within Virginia’s public colleges and universities.
For if ever there was one, now is the time to ask.
[i]Institute for Research on Higher Education. College Opportunity Risk Assessment: Virginia. Philadelphia, PA: Institute for Research on Higher Education, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania, 2018, https://irhe.gse.upenn.edu/sites/default/files/College-Opportunity-Risk-Assessment-2018-VIRGINIA.pdf.
[iii]McNab, Robert, et al. 2017 State of the Commonwealth Report.Center for Economic Analysis and Policy, Strome College of Business, Old Dominion University, 2017, p. 116.