McDonnell Turns Attention to Affordable Higher Education

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In a move designed to grab a sliver of spotlight from his Democratic rivals in the race for Virginia governor, Republican Robert F. McDonnell turned his attention yesterday to the difficulties that parents and students are facing in affording college.

McDonnell laid out a far-reaching education policy proposal yesterday during a speech at George Mason University, pledging to help ensure that the state awards 119,000 additional associate's and bachelor's degrees in the next 15 years.

He also vowed to increase the number of students in programs that train them for high-paying jobs in key industries, such as engineering and nursing, and to promote public-private partnerships for workforce training and university research.

The policy rollout was the second by McDonnell that addressed an issue that could have broad bipartisan appeal. He also recently unveiled a plan calling for the preservation of 400,000 acres of open space -- a goal that mirrors one pushed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) during his term.

The education and environmental proposals appeared aimed at branding McDonnell's campaign as one intent on problem solving rather than tapping into hot-button social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and immigration that in the past have been grist for Republican candidates in Virginia.

In yesterday's speech, McDonnell lashed out at rising tuition costs, saying universities are spending too much on unneeded amenities and duplicative academic programs that he referred to as "bridges to nowhere."

He called for the creation of a tuition "rainy day" fund during boom times and incentives tied to state funding for four-year and community colleges.

"The hard reality is this: The 21st-century economy requires increasingly high skill and knowledge levels," he said at the Fairfax campus of George Mason, a commuter college that has grown rapidly in the past decade to serve 31,000 students. "Too few Virginians are going to college and getting that preparation, and our present state policies are doing far too little about it."

Democrats expressed skepticism at McDonnell's approach.

"To me the question is, 'Where's the beef?' Bob McDonnell has a poor record on higher education," said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for Virginia's Democratic Party, citing McDonnell's vote against then-Gov. Mark Warner's 2004 budget in the House of Delegates. "It's fine for him to spout platitudes, but he's consistently voted against funding for our colleges and universities."

Noticeably absent from McDonnell's speech was any discussion of a statewide tuition freeze or a mandate requiring state schools to maintain a quota of in-state students -- two issues that stirred passions during this year's General Assembly session.

Out-of-state students have helped many Virginia schools cover operating costs. At Mason, for example, the admission of out-of-state students has soared from 10 percent of the student body to 24 percent in the past decade. Out-of-state undergraduate students pay $22,500 per year, while Virginia residents pay $7,500 per year.

McDonnell touted a plan from an unlikely source -- President Obama -- who called for "performance pay" for schoolteachers. He also cited a need for increased support for public school alternatives such as charter schools.

After the presentation, Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason, said he was "glad to hear Bob McDonnell wants to increase incentives for students and their universities" but said the plan lacked a "clear idea" on how schools would pay for all of the new students.

"Most universities have zero incentive to grow," Merten said. "And, as long as the state is unwilling to change funding on the operating side, we can't change our tuition policy."

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