Sticker shock

Parents with children who recently graduated from a Virginia public college are both proud and fortunate. Tuition and fees at Virginia’s state colleges remained stable the past eight years, but now those bills are coming due.

With a new fall semester set to begin next month around the Old Dominion, it has been reported that tuition and fees at state colleges will have increased 46 percent between the 2002 and 2004 academic years. Similar numbers (42 percent) are being reported by Virginia’s community colleges.

This spike in college costs should not be a surprise, even though some parents will suffer from a case of bad timing as their kids pay much more to attend Virginia’s colleges than students who entered five or six years ago.

Much of the cost comes down to the commonwealth’s ability to pay for higher education in a slow economy that’s required massive budget cuts to avoid a multi-billion dollar shortfall. College boards of visitors were told to make up the difference through a combination of budget cuts and tuition increases as the tuition freeze of the late 1990s was lifted. State colleges made some cuts, which will be evident this fall when students find a more narrow range of classes in the academic catalog.

The tuition hikes were inevitable because these costs had been kept artificially low for so many years. Taking into account the increase from the mid-1990s through today, Virginia’s state colleges have increased tuition at a rate that’s still below that of inflation.

Analyzing the numbers and explaining the anemic state budget to parents of college bound students, however, is no conciliation. If there is any good news, it is that Virginia still has many of the best public colleges when considering the quality of education and its costs.

The tuition spike is reminiscent, though not as drastic, as the tuition spike of the late 1980s and early ’90s when then-Gov. Douglas Wilder allowed tuition increases as part of his plan to balance the state budget without raising taxes.

With that nightmare a recent memory, politicians in Richmond quickly moved to freeze tuitions in the mid-1990s. This year’s increase – an adjustment in reaction to the tuition freeze – will result in some sticker shock.

Considering that so many parents work most of their adult lives to pay for their kids’ higher education, we wonder what role the college tuition issue will play in General Assembly elections this fall. With both sides unwilling to debate specifics on reforming the state tax code, it seems that college costs would be a good issue for debate.

The commonwealth took a small step in paying for college infrastructure last year through a bond package. The challenge in the future for state lawmakers will be to find a sensible funding stream to buttress the operation of the commonwealth’s institutions of higher learning.