Virginia's teachers do a relatively good job preparing students for college, but fewer high school graduates have enrolled in institutions of higher learning in the past decade, according to a state-by-state "report card" by a nonprofit group.
The nationwide assessment of how well the states are getting students ready for college said most Virginia eighth-graders are performing well in math and reading but only fair in science. The report also praised the state for its high scores on Advanced Placement tests by high school juniors and seniors.
Virginia earned a D-minus grade, however, for education "affordability," a measure of tuition costs and financial aid. The cost for low- and middle-income students to attend public four-year colleges and universities represents nearly 40 percent of their families' income, the report said.
"Virginia's good performance in preparing students for college has not been matched by comparable performance in college enrollment levels of young adults," the analysis said, noting that 30 percent of the state's 18- to 24-year-olds are enrolled in college, a 1 percent decline from a decade ago. "This is of particular concern because of the projected growth in the numbers of high school graduates over the next decade."
The recently released analysis was by the California-based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, an independent organization not tied to any college, political party or government agency and funded by several charitable foundations.
The study, the third such evaluation of the states by the center, provided letter grades in individual categories. A Washington Post analysis of the results showed that Virginia's average grade -- a 2.68 on a four-point scale, or just below a B-minus -- was lower than Maryland's average grade of 2.88, or just below a B.
Center officials and educators said they hoped the report would stimulate discussions among state educators about how to improve access to higher education.
"If you have grades you don't like, this is an opportunity to start a conversation among state policymakers to see what can be done about it," said David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and an adviser to the report.
In a grade category called participation, which looks at whether residents have sufficient opportunities to enroll in colleges, Virginia earned a B-minus because of the decline in the proportion of students enrolling.
Particularly troubling, the report said, is the widening divide between white and minority students who go to college. A decade ago, 33 of every 100 young minority students were enrolled in college; now, only 25 of 100 are, the report said. Another disparity: Young adults from high-income families are twice as likely as those from low-income families to attend college.
Breneman blamed the slight drop in participation on Virginia's budget cuts. Colleges and universities do not have an incentive to add students -- and costs -- when the state is slashing their budgets, Breneman said.
"We've had such a chaotic roller-coaster budget ride for the last decade," he said, starting with cuts by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) and most recently by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) during economic downturns.
Virginia's lowest grade was the D-minus for the affordability of higher education. Most states flunked this measure; Maryland and 35 other states got an F.
"Virginia is one of the few states that has held the line in the share of family income, after financial aid, needed to pay for two-year community colleges," the study said. "However, the high costs of attending four-year colleges and universities in the state may further limit the college opportunities of the state's young population."
Breneman said a population boom in young adults poses a challenge for policymakers, who he said cannot take for granted that the state's higher education system can absorb everyone, especially when tuition costs are proportionately higher than family income.
A college education "is a ticket to the middle class for many people," Breneman said. "We cripple people economically if we deny them that education."
The analysis said that over the past decade, Virginia has increased its investment in financial aid, but this investment is low compared with other states.
Warner, chairman of the National Governors Association, said in a message accompanying the report that the proposed redesign of the senior year of high school could help families save on college costs.
In a speech last month at Marshall High in Falls Church, Warner said seniors should be allowed to receive college credit, saving some of their college tuition and trimming states' higher education budgets. He said he would announce an arrangement under which Virginia's public universities will accept credit for a set of common classes offered at community colleges.
Warner said in the report card message, "This initiative will help with affordability by saving students and their families a half-year of tuition and will enable us to serve more students through efficient use of our higher education capacity."
Virginia's highest grade was an A-minus for a category called benefits, which are the advantages the state receives from a highly educated population. Virginia has a high proportion of residents with a bachelor's degree, including minority residents. Gaps, however, remain in education achievement between whites and minorities, the report said.
The state earned a B-plus for preparation, which measures elementary and secondary schools' performance teaching math, reading and science. Though noting eighth-graders' improvement in math, center officials said that compared with their peers in other states, Virginia's low-income eighth-graders scored "very poorly" on national math assessments.
Virginia received a B for completion, or the number of students who finish college in a timely manner. A large proportion of freshmen return for their sophomore year at colleges and universities, the study said.
"The grades for Virginia overall were relatively decent," Breneman said. "They suggest we have a basically strong system."
Staff writer Amy Argetsinger contributed to this report.
The study, "Measuring Up 2004," can be viewed at www.highereducation.org.