Empty Promises

Sunday, October 11, 2009

LISTEN TO the promises of Virginia's two gubernatorial candidates regarding higher education, and it's hard to tell the difference. Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell both say that they will increase the number of degrees awarded while also making college more affordable. Also common to both: Neither has a clue as to where the state will find the money.

Transportation consumes most of the oxygen in the state's gubernatorial contest, so it's encouraging that some attention is being focused on the critical needs of the state's community colleges and universities. Both candidates have embraced an initiative by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council to boost the share of state residents earning college degrees to 50 percent of working-age Virginians from the current 42 percent. The council calculates that for every dollar invested in public higher education, the state gets back $1.39 in tax revenue.

So Mr. Deeds says that he would add 70,000 degrees in the next 10 years; Mr. McDonnell promises 100,000 new degrees in the next 15 years. (Virginia's institutions awarded 56,735 degrees in 2008-09). Frankly, it's hard to keep a straight face, given the realities that have led to unstable and declining state support for higher education. Consider that general fund appropriations to public higher education in Virginia fell from 14 percent in 1992 to 11 percent in the current fiscal year. Virginia lags behind the national average for educational appropriations: $5,805 per student in 2008, compared to $7,059. Virginians seeking to go to college face such a financial burden that the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has given the state a failing grade for affordability.

Mr. Deeds says that he will wring savings from new efficiencies in state operations; Mr. McDonnell says that there will be a bipartisan effort to come up with a sustained source of spending. Both seem to be betting on the economy turning around, and neither is talking about what happens when federal stimulus money goes away in two years.

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