Turner: Unallocated funds in McDonnell’s budget could benefit higher education

Students pursuing higher education in Virginia continue to see tremendous increases in tuition rates — 41 percent over the past five years at four-year schools — due in large part to the decrease in state support. Virginia community colleges have also seen state support drop, from $4,275 per student to $2,583 in the past four years, driving tuition up for those students who can often least afford it. With each new year, higher education becomes less and less affordable, and students are graduating with more debt than ever; the average student debt load in Virginia is $24,717.

Moreover, even the increases in tuition rates still do not account for the lack of state-appropriated funds, and colleges and universities are having to make cuts and reduce funding to some important components of higher education, including course offerings and class sizes.

But for every problem, if we have our priorities straight, there’s a solution. One step in the right direction is the $50.9 million unallocated balance former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell left behind in his last budget, the largest unappropriated balance since 1991. I can’t think of a more worthy priority for the commonwealth’s future than making higher education more affordable for Virginia students.

If only more state support for colleges and universities had come in the past four years. I just graduated from the University of Mary Washington, a liberal arts school, in December 2013 and I have seen firsthand the negative effects taking place at schools due to lack of funds.

I experienced an increase in tuition and other fees each year, and didn’t qualify for any financial aid, leaving me with debt to manage in my new graduated state of unemployment.

I also faced a complementary problem, also caused by our state’s decrease in funding: an inability to get the courses I needed to graduate.

While planning my last semester before graduation, there were not enough classes offered to satisfy the requirements that I still needed to fulfill my minor. I only needed a handful of classes in order to graduate, but the class list fell short of meeting the requirements. Luckily, the language department offered the option of creating individual studies for credit. Otherwise, I would have had to pay a lot more money in order to stay an extra semester.

My experience was a part of a larger problem: The number of classes offered has dwindled, which has had a devastating effect on students’ ability to graduate and limit debt. Many other students have had to create their own classes to graduate. In some cases, classes that were previously split into multiple levels have had to combine, resulting in notably fewer specialized courses. And some have had to delay graduation because a required course simply wasn’t offered in time.

The unallocated $50 million in McDonnell’s budget proposal could be a start to bridging the gap for these vital expenses, keeping colleges and universities in Virginia affordable and distinguished.

If the state does not allocate more available funds to higher education, then we will continue to see an increase in tuition and student debt and a decrease in the quality of our world-class higher education system in Virginia.

Camille Turner is a freelance writer living in Fredericksburg. Contact her at aturner2@umw.edu.

This piece originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on February 8, 2014

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