Gov. Bob McDonnell (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Alexa Welch Edlund)

Virginia21, a group that represents young voters, brought 10,000 signed petitions to encourage legislators to pump more money in the state’s colleges and universities. Students wore T-shirts that indicated the amounts of debt they have incurred.

McDonnell urged the General Assembly to pass his higher education package, which includes more than $200 million over the next two years.

“These double digit tuition increases that Governor [Mark] Warner and Governor [Tim] Kaine allowed to happen...we’re going to fix it,’’ McDonnell said in a previous interview. “I think they helped to break the system and we’re going to fix it. Double digit increases are unacceptable for kids and for their parents and I said we’re going to fix it.”

The two former Democratic governors — or at least their staff — disagreed with that assessment.

“The rising cost of college is a huge concern for Senator Warner as we work to strengthen the economic recovery with a well-trained workforce,’’ said Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Warner, now a U.S. senator. “Don’t forget that Senator Warner was the first member of his family to graduate from college, thanks to the student loan program, so he certainly is aware of the impact of rising college costs on students and Virginia families.”

In 2002-03, Warner, then governor, cut more than $500 million from the state’s higher education system a part of an effort to address a $6 billion shortfall. To offset the impact of the cuts, he authorized colleges to set tuition rates for the first time since the legislature enacted a cap and 20 percent cut in 1998. Later, he added $267 million for higher education.

Kaine, who succeeded Warner and is now seeking the Democratic nomination for the Senate, governed during the worst recession since the Great Depression, cutting more than $5 billion from Virginia's budget. 

“Governor Kaine agrees that the sky-rocketing cost of a college degree is unacceptable,’’ Kaine’s spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said. “That’s why, even as he was cutting more than $5 billion from Virginia’s budget, he directed millions in tuition assistance to those with financial need.  He also made college more accessible for Virginians and created jobs right here in the Commonwealth by securing the largest bond package for higher education construction in Virginia’s history. As a U.S. Senator, he’ll continue to promote policies that make college more accessible and affordable.”

McDonnell said Thursday that he wants schools to keep down tuition costs and “reverse a pattern of disinvestment or erratic investment” in higher education, which had led to tuition hikes of 10 percent a year for the past decade.

Public in-state college students borrowed over $657 million to pay for college in 2009-101, according to the State Council of Higher Education. That is an average of $21,495 for graduates with debt and represents $100 million more of borrowing than the year before.

The extra money would be offered as a reward to schools that achieve certain goals intended to make the institutions more efficient and their graduates more employable. Those goals include graduating more students in fewer than four years and graduating more in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math and health sciences.

“This is the first generation in history that has needed to borrow so much money to prepare for its future and we are being asked to do so without knowing the long-term impact on that very future,’’ Virginia21 Executive Director Tom Kramer said.