The result? A creeping privatization that threatens to undermine the very advantages that make Virginia’s top public schools what they are.
To be sure, state education bureaucrats and legislators call it not “privatizing” but “restructuring.” This euphemism means the schools will gradually demand tuition closer to what is charged at the top national, private institutions but won’t have to go through the hassle that true privatization would entail — such as the selling of public property and making good on repaying decades of public investment.
There is some logic to this approach: If Virginia’s elite public colleges start approaching market rates for tuition, the thinking goes, state money could be freed up to spend on lesser institutions. More financial-aid money would become available. The state could use those resources to reach for its goal of 100,000 more students earning degrees. Since 2005, when the concept was formalized in General Assembly legislation, Virginia Commonwealth University added itself to the list of schools willing to trade funding for autonomy.
The same year that “restructuring” was approved, John T. Casteen II, then the president of U-Va., announced an ambitious campaign to raise $3 billion through fundraising. Most of that has been collected, although the effort to raise so much private money at a public school raised eyebrows. More recently, Taylor Reveley, president of William and Mary, proposed bringing his school’s tuition levels to market rates, which, for a nationally rated private institution, would be about $45,000 a year for tuition, room and board. Out-of-state W&M students now pay $44,854 a year, while in-state students pay $22,024.
Reveley notes that Richmond provides only 13 percent of W&M’s funding, which is way down from the 43 percent of 30 years ago. This trend has been even more pronounced at other elite Virginia public colleges. At the University of Virginia, the state pays less than 8 percent of what the school needs. At Tech, the process has been slower. In 2000, the state provided 58 percent of the school’s needs; today it’s 28 percent.
Reveley argues that if more in-state parents or students paid full freight, then his school could offer more generous financial-aid packages to middle- and lower-income students. He also believes that as top schools become more self-sustaining, a second tier of Virginia schools could be given more state funding and raise their own academic standings. These would include Old Dominion, George Mason, James Madison, Radford, Longwood and the state’s community college system.