A new report from a higher-education advocacy group identifies 17 private colleges in Virginia where tuition and fees total more than two-fifths of median household income in the Commonwealth.
The analysis assails Virginia schools on affordability at a time when President Obama has elevated that issue into the national spotlight. In a speech last Friday, Obama announced a plan to steer federal aid away from colleges that charge too much tuition.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is a Washington nonprofit best-known for an annual report card that grades colleges on whether they require all students to study such basic subjects as foreign language, math and science. The group encourages trustees (and alumni) to take a more activist role in governing what is taught on campus — as well as what students are charged in tuition and fees.
The Virginia report, titled “The Diffusion of Light and Education,” takes its name from a Thomas Jefferson quote and critiques Virginia colleges in a range of areas where they seem to fall short of state expectations.
“Our report shows that the areas of cost-effectiveness and student learning — which are hot topics nationally — are ripe for thoughtful attention in Virginia,” said ACTA President Anne Neal, in a statement. “In too many places, graduation rates are low, administrative bloat is high and tuition is taking an ever-larger percentage of family income.”
Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at ACTA, said in an interview that his group was pleased with the Obama administration’s initiative to tie federal funding to price.
“I take it as a sign that the common ground now is grave impatience with waste and low quality in higher education,” he said.
Among the report’s findings:
• Virginia leaders have put an emphasis on education in science, technology, engineering and math. Yet the report finds that more than one-third of the 39 public and private institutions studied do not require that students take math. None requires the study of economics.
• Despite Virginia’s seminal role in American history, only two institutions require a basic course in American history or government.
• Amid a national campaign to raise completion rates, fewer than half of the colleges studied match or exceed the national graduation rate of 57.4 percent in six years.
The report was commissioned by the Beazley Foundation, a Portsmouth, Va., charity that has given more than $75 million to support Virginia higher education. The foundation announced today that it would suspend collegiate giving in light of the report’s findings.
In a statement, foundation CEO Richard Bray cited “the departure of numerous institutions from the discipline of a core curriculum fundamental to education in the liberal arts.” The trustees group has long advocated that many colleges, including many Virginia institutions, should require students to study a slate of fundamental subjects.
In the area of affordability, ACTA finds substantial increases in inflation-adjusted tuition and fees at nearly every Virginia campus. Between 2004-05 and 2010-11, tuition and fees rose by 49 percent to $12,188 at the College of William and Mary, by 38 percent to $8,684 at George Mason University and by 38 percent to $10,828 at the University of Virginia, after adjusting for inflation.
Among private institutions, tuition and fees are up 36 percent to $40,387 at Washington and Lee University, up 36 percent to $41,610 at the University of Richmond and up 23 percent to $32,489 at Hampden-Sydney College.
Much of the increase in public tuition in Virginia can be traced to a precipitous decline in state subsidies, which have fallen for five consecutive years.
Gov. Bob McDonnell has pledged to reverse the trend this year, delivering a 7 percent increase in state aid. If his proposal is approved by the legislature, public universities will most likely respond with correspondingly lower tuition increases.
William and Mary President Taylor Reveley has suggested that his institution may eventually have to raise in-state tuition to full market rates if the slide in state funding continues.
Poliakoff, the ACTA official, said it was too simple to blame rising tuition on declining state aid. The group’s analysis shows that administrative expenses at Virginia colleges are generally rising faster than instructional expenses. At James Madison University, for example, the report found that administrative expenses more than doubled between 2003 and 2009.
“We’re very skeptical about the continued demands for more and more funding,” Poliakoff said. “The trajectory of higher education over the last 25 years has been sharply upward, whether there’s state money or not.”
The increase in private college tuition is more complicated. The net price of private tuition and fees is generally flat, because tuition increases have been offset by aggressive increases in student aid. Thus, students at both Richmond and Washington and Lee don’t actually pay much more on average than they did five years ago. The institutions are drifting toward a more progressive tuition structure, which tends to reward lower-income students and to burden the wealthy.