Americans have a long history of encouraging education, from Massachusetts' first public school in 1635 to Alexis de Tocqueville's observation that "There is scarcely a pioneer's cabin where one does not encounter some odd volumes of Shakespeare."
As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1822, "I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of man."
But in Virginia (and across the country), many people find it increasingly difficult to afford accessing the "diffusion of light and education" at colleges and universities. A study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) released in January concluded, after assessing 39 Virginia colleges, that the cost of higher education in Virginia is "exploding."
"Since 1987, tuition costs have gone up over more than four times the Consumer Price Index," said Michael Poliakoff, ACTA policy director. Tuition costs rose nationally from 13 percent of a family's income in 1980 to 25 percent in 2000.
Cari Peacock, a junior English major at George Mason University (GMU), said that she started with a full tuition scholarship, but while her tuition increases every year, "my scholarship, unfortunately, does not" (a policy GMU altered the year after Peacock's matriculation).
Many families are paying much more, however. "At 17 of these 39 schools, tuition and fees now represent more than 40 percent of the median household income," wrote ACTA. "The current rise in cost is simply not sustainable for families, despite the expansion of need-based grant programs."
"I'm very alarmed at how close we're coming to a point where for many families, four year education is slipping out of reach," Poliakoff said.
Some blame tuition hikes on reductions in state funding because of budget crunches in Richmond. "Sixty percent of the budget came from the state 10 to 11 years ago. Now it's at 30 percent," said GMU spokesman Dan Walsh. ACTA found that GMU's tuition increased by 38.1 percent from 2004 to 2011. "The attitude is that [the tuition increase] could be much higher," Walsh said. "We try to be sensitive to the needs of the public."
But Poliakoff contends that "It's wrongâ€¦that when state funding is not at what [a university] expects to take it out on the backs of students," he said. "The startling escalation in tuition costs cannot be explained by state appropriation."
Higher administrative expenditures and inefficient use of current facilities contributed to increasing tuition rates, according to ACTA. "There are a lot of efficiencies that have not been realized," Poliakoff said, such as students who take longer than four years to graduate and large numbers of small elective classes. "Doing the basics is not only much better academically, but also more cost effective."
Other critics, such as Richard Vedder of The Center for College Affordability & Productivity, have noted that federal government student loan and grant programs pump $80 billion per year into higher education. With parents and students having more money and the willingness to spend it, colleges have little incentive to cut costs.
Regent University, a private Christian college in Virginia Beach, has kept tuition steady $495 per credit hour for the past few years, according to Dr. Gerson Moreno-Riano, Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies. "We've done that on purpose," he said. "We want to be good stewards. There's a fine line between being inhumane and efficient and humane and good stewards."
Some of the steps to cost control Regent is taking include having graduate professors teach undergraduate classes, reducing textbook costs, and focusing more on classes than on building out the campus infrastructure.
The Virginia state legislature passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act last year which provides an incentive-based funding plan for state institutions and requires colleges to present to SCHEV a six-year plan for addressing tuition rates. "You can't necessarily say it will lead to decreases in tuition," said Kirsten Nelson of the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV). "It will lead to lower increases."
She added that students can lower tuition costs by using Virginia's community college agreement. After completing two years at a community college, students can transfer to a four year state university. "There are lots of creative ways students can lower tuition costs," she said.