Recommitting to Virginia schools
THE STATUS quo has long been king of the political hill in Virginia. With the General Assembly convening its annual session as we speak, the more cynical political observer could remark that political reform comes to the Old Dominion only after a prerequisite disaster so large as to shock the public and its legislative body into action. In the case of higher education policy, the state of emergency has been declared. Three of the Commonwealth's flagship institutions of higher learning, including the University, have publicly undertaken an initiative to demand greater autonomy from the Commonwealth. While tragic, political realities have forced these institutions to seek increased freedom from the state.
The debate over this proposal for a new quasi-public model for higher education in Virginia is necessary. However, even more importantly, the circumstances leading to this debate brings into sharp relief the effects of a dangerous attitude that has thrived for years in the General Assembly. For too long, legislators and policy-makers in Virginia have treated higher education with a "one size fits all" approach. This has critically damaged the quality of education at many of Virginia's most prestigious undergraduate colleges. By failing to make distinctions for the diverse missions of the Commonwealth's institutions of higher learning, the flagship schools were left behind. The excuse from Assembly members that "other schools are in worse shape and deserve a higher priority right now" just won't suffice any longer. After a decade of silently enduring countless rounds of crippling cuts in General Revenue, Virginia's most prestigious schools rightly have cried "enough is enough."
Public colleges and universities are integral parts of the economic engine driving any state economy. In Georgia, for example, one of the most popular political initiatives in memory has been the creation of the HOPE Scholarship program. Graduating high school seniors who demonstrate high academic achievement are given full scholarship to the public school of their choice or receive a modest stipend to attend a private alternative within the state. This incentive program has dramatically boosted the average SAT score for in-state students at the University of Georgia, improving the quality of that institution while keeping the best and brightest at home.
Virginia's approach to higher education has encouraged the opposite, frequently referred to as the "brain drain." The best and brightest students graduate the secondary school system only to see a starving lot of public colleges in-state, with budgets and tuition levels held hostage by the state government in order to promote their less prestigious peers. By refusing to invest wisely in a diverse system that accommodates all graduating high school seniors, ranging from those who might benefit from technical training or a few years in a community college all the way up to those of highest academic achievement, Virginia is abandoning one of the most basic prerequisites to a healthy economic future.
If successful, this proposal for greater policy autonomy from the state will force Virginia's policy-makers to recognize a decade's worth of policies of neglect and abandonment. The initiative should not be mistaken for a futile plea for increased general revenue. Even the most ignorant political observer knows that the means do not exist to dramatically increase state funding for higher education (especially not to the tune of over $400 million: the amount estimated by the State Council on Higher Education it would take to fund public colleges and universities at a level to maintain base adequacy). Instead, this proposal should prod lawmakers into considering the role government should play when promoting a comprehensive system of higher education.
The flagship public universities in Virginia have finally announced that they will not be taken advantage of in order to create political solutions to crises of the General Assembly's making. No longer shall tuition rates be used as tools to plug holes in the budget (on the backs of students and parents, it should be added) simply because the General Assembly lacks to conviction to take steps to increase General Revenue state-wide. These institutions that receive pennies on the dollar from Richmond (General Revenues account for approximately 10 percent of the academic operating budget at the University) should not have their policies directed by the likes of such minority investors. With their clear lack of commitment to Virginia's most prestigious institutions of higher learning, the Commonwealth's policy-makers are but dead weight dragging these schools down. It is well past time for Virginia to put up or shut up when it comes to maintaining a nation-leading system of higher education.
(Preston Lloyd's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.)