Marc Fisher's Blog: To Boost In-State Rolls, Va. Colleges Need More Funds

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

In their increasingly desperate search for messages that might win them some votes in ever-more-Democratic Northern Virginia, Republicans think they've hit pay dirt with an appeal to parents stressed out about getting their kids into the state's universities.

Over the past decade, out-of-state students have been given an ever-increasing portion of the seats at the University of Virginia, George Mason University and the commonwealth's other major colleges. Now here's a red-meat issue politicians can grab hold of: Force the schools to reserve more of their places for genuine Virginians and just watch the votes of grateful citizens roll in.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell says the percentage of out-of-staters must come down. (As the campaign has progressed, McDonnell has clarified his position to say that he wants to increase the overall number of seats for students at state colleges rather than rationing places to in-state or out-of-state students. But he's made no commitment to spending more state money on public colleges.)

McDonnell's Democratic opponents say more money is the only solution that will enable those schools to admit more Virginians. Slapping tighter quotas on out-of-state kids won't work. As candidate Brian Moran has said, "The out-of-state kids help keep the cost of in-state tuition down."

Exactly right, says Alan Merten, president of George Mason University and a vocal defender of both the intellectual good and the financial stability that come from adding out-of-state students.

A decade ago, Merten says, "for every $1 we raised in tuition, we had $2 in state money." Today, for every dollar the colleges draw in tuition, they receive only 75 cents in state support. That enormous shift of the funding burden onto tuition has given Virginia colleges no choice but to jack up the number of out-of-state students they admit because out-of-staters pay dramatically more in tuition. At Mason, for example, in-state undergraduates pay $7,500 a year, whereas out-of-staters pay $22,500 a year.

"So when I admit two students who look a lot alike and one comes from Alexandria, Va., and the other from Alexandria, Egypt, that $22,000 check is subsidizing the in-state student," Merten says.

At Mason, out-of-state students have soared from 10 percent of the population to 24 percent in the past decade, in part because the school's academic reputation has improved, in part because the basketball team's Cinderella year in the NCAA Final Four gave Mason a publicity bonanza, and in part because the school just plain needs the money.

The reason this decade-long transformation has become a political hot potato just in the past couple of years is that the state kept cutting back on spending increases for higher education, which meant major state universities slowed their building programs and stopped adding seats for students. If the total number of students flattens out and the percentage of out-of-state students keeps rising, you do the math -- Virginia families feel squeezed because they are being squeezed.

"What has to be decided in Virginia is are we going to have more high school graduates going to four-year colleges?" Merten says. "And if so, where are they going to go?"

Some schools don't want to grow -- the University of Virginia and William and Mary want to maintain their size to protect their reputations and intimate atmosphere. But Mason aspires to become what Merten calls the Ohio State of Virginia -- a campus serving 40,000-plus students, up from its current size of 31,000 students.

To get there, it will need significantly more state support. All four gubernatorial candidates say they want to move more kids into college. But no candidate has committed to adding to the universities' capacity using state dollars.

"They're more interested in being able to tell their constituents that they tried to control the number of out-of-state students than in actually making the changes that would allow us to take more in-state students," Merten says. "Putting caps on tuition and putting caps on out-of-state students -- it doesn't take much analysis to see that that doesn't work."

Sadly, it's not analysis that interests politicians who see a reservoir of votes in the frustration so many parents feel about their kids not getting into their own state's colleges. What those politicians aren't counting on is that many voters have already figured this out: Scapegoating out-of-state kids won't solve anything. Only real support to improve and expand public colleges will.


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