Editorial: Who pays for higher education?

Rappahannock high-schoolers are likely looking at a tougher time getting into state colleges than their predecessors faced — plus higher tuition and fewer classes if they do get in.

That’s because of Virginia’s ever-shrinking higher-education budget. The budget that state legislators approved last month calls for reductions of $243.5 million in the 2011-12 fiscal years. Nearly $200 million in federal stimulus funds will help make up most of the shortfall in fiscal 2011, but nobody seems quite sure what’s in store for 2012.

At half a dozen public universities across the state, it likely means a 15 percent drop in state support and substantial tuition increases. In addition to raising tuition, university presidents face the difficult task of cutting jobs and course offerings just when Virginia’s campuses are bursting at the seams.

It also means more out-of-state students will be admitted to state universities — not because of the knowledge in their heads, but because of the money in their bank accounts. Although there is no ironclad policy on nonresident undergraduate numbers, most Virginia schools have kept the in-state/out-of-state ratio to about 75/25 over the past decade.

As state funding for Virginia’s higher-education system continues to shrink, expect that out-of-state figure to rise.
One doesn’t have to be a math major to understand why. For a Virginia resident, tuition at the University of Virginia this year was $7,496. For a nonresident, the bill came to $29,054. The difference at William & Mary was almost $20,000 per student — meaning the school stood to gain nearly $1 million for every 50 out-of-state students it accepted. That translates into a lot of liberal arts professors and technology courses.

Even at those rates, however, U.Va. and William & Mary are still viewed as bargains in the world of higher education. As a point of comparison, a year at Georgetown University goes for about $36,000. George Washington University is a few dollars short of $50,000.

At the end of the day, Virginia universities are primarily for Virginia students. They and their families spend years paying taxes that support the universities and, in return, receive reduced in-state tuition rates.

Students from outside Virginia bring in needed alternative backgrounds, expertise and viewpoints, making for a well-rounded educational experience. But if they want to take up spots on our campuses, it’s only right that these kids pay a premium — in the form of higher out-of-state tuition — to attend Virginia’s universities.

Instead of raising the cap on the percentage of out-of-state students being admitted by 10 percent, perhaps the better option is to bump tuition rates by 10 percent to the current group of out-of-state students.

It isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s certainly better than telling top students from Rappahannock County High School there’s no room for them at our top state schools.

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