STATES FACING dwindling resources have cut back on support to public universities and colleges. It’s been seen as an easy way out, since the institutions, unlike many others receiving public funds, could fall back on raising tuition. But the consequences of this disinvestment are a decline in quality and more students denied affordable access to higher education.
The plight of public universities and colleges was recently spotlighted by The Post’s Daniel de Vise in an examination of deteriorating conditions at the University of California at Berkeley. State support has declined from 47 percent of the school’s operating budget in 1991 to 11 percent. Tuition has skyrocketed, faculty have been furloughed, classes are bigger and California students have been turned away in favor of out-of-state residents, who pay more. The University of Michigan has witnessed a decline in state support from 48 percent to 17 percent over two decades, while the University of Virginia experienced a drop from 26 percent to 7 percent.
So alarmed is Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) by his state’s disinvestment (contrasted with Maryland, which has maintained generous support and has frozen tuition) that he’s made higher education a priority. His recently announced biennial budget included a $230 million increase to public universities and colleges that he hopes will slow tuition increases and, with other incentives, better prepare Virginians for work and boost job-creating research. Nonetheless, Virginia still will need more reliable financing for public universities.
One place to look is the practice of “in-state tuition,” which grants any Virginia resident, regardless of resources or income, a state-subsidized tuition rate that doesn’t come close to paying the cost of the education being provided. Taylor Reveley, president of the College of William and Mary, where state funding declined from 43 percent of the operating budget 30 years ago to 13 percent, has rightly suggested some creative thinking about letting market conditions determine college costs. A student who can afford to pay full freight for college would free funds that could go to financial aid for needy students from lower- and middle-income backgrounds. High-caliber universities able to attract students willing to pay the market rate would free state resources that could go to public schools more in need.
To be sure, colleges need to be smarter about how they spend money. But the challenges confronting public higher education go far beyond the savings that can be realized through efficiency. A commitment of ideas and resources are needed if America is to continue its grand tradition of its citizens bettering themselves — and itself — through education.