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Dragas, Martin trade Times-Dispatch columns

Former Rector says tuition increases unsustainable, current Rector disagrees

	<p>Helen Dragas, above, served as Rector of the Board of Visitors between July 2011 and June 2013.</p>

Helen Dragas, above, served as Rector of the Board of Visitors between July 2011 and June 2013.

Two University rectors, one former and one current, have taken to the Richmond Times Dispatch in a war of words over undergraduate tuition hikes at the University.

Former Rector Helen Dragas wrote in the Dispatch May 1 that yearly hikes in University tuition were unsustainable after losing a 12-3 vote on raising the cost of attending U.Va. Rector George Martin responded May 11 that the tuition rise was necessary to maintain a high caliber of educational experience.

Dragas said Virginia residents recovering from a financial crisis needed assistance in terms of lower education costs.

“I don’t believe excellence should be only for the elite,” Dragas said in an email. “Not having enough money to pay for your children’s college education continues to rank as one of Americans’ top 10 financial worries in the Gallup organization’s annual economic and personal finance poll. The thought that we could be creating a society of educational haves and have-nots is one I cannot support.

University spokesperson McGregor McCance said the University is raising tuition by 4.3 percent for in-state students and 5.9 percent for out-of-state students in the 2014-15 academic year. As a blended percent figure, the rise will amount to 5.4 percent.

McCance said increases will fund operational expense increases and strategic plan initiatives. In March, the Virginia General Assembly increased the University’s contribution to the Virginia Retirement System. The University must pay an additional $5 million dollars to the VRS, which accounts for 1.4 percent of the undergraduate tuition hike. The majority of operational increases will go toward faculty and staff compensation.

University President Teresa Sullivan has continued to make faculty salary increases a number one priority for her term. Dragas said the University needs to look toward increasing research grant funding and fundraising to find the money for faculty salary increases.

“That said, I’m not interested in engaging in a salaries arms race with others where, at the end of the day, the risk is that everyone will lose,” Dragas said.

In his column, Martin said a priority for the Board of Visitors, which he as rector chairs, is “attracting and retaining top faculty — a task made more difficult by demographic trends evidencing an approaching wave of faculty retirements.”

Dragas argued “hefty salary increases” and “generous retirement and health benefits” do not make tuition increases three times the level of inflation justifiable.

“U.Va. tuition more than doubled in a decade, while median family incomes adjusted for inflation in Virginia fell about 5 percent in the last reportable four years,” Dragas said. “That alone makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to justify asking Virginians who are earning less to pay faculty and administrators so much more.”

Martin maintained that even with the tuition increases the University is committed to meeting 100 percent of demonstrated financial need.

“Not only do our graduates leave Charlottesville with substantially less student loan debt than state and national averages, they also save money by finishing on time,” he said. “Our 87.2 percent four-year graduation rate is one of the best in the country. We do not take tuition and fee increases lightly. We are working hard to keep these charges as low as possible.”

Board student representative Meg Gould, a fourth-year College student, said she agrees with Martin that tuition hikes are necessary. She emphasized that hikes will not affect the University’s commitment to financial aid.

“These increases will not be burdening students that are on financial aid,” she said. “One hundred percent of the need will still be met, and so even if tuition rises that will be covered.”

Gould said students should expect tuition increases and support the causes those increases are funding.

“Everyone knew a tuition increase was coming,” she said. “Once you understand that it’s making U.Va. a more attractive place for students, it does make sense.”

Dragas, however, said tuition rises threaten the University’s ability to attract a diverse student body from various socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Today, [the American dream] inspires many Virginia families to take on massive debt, and especially to secure a prestigious degree from this university,” she wrote. “When the price of admission to a public university is too daunting or just plain impossible, diversity in all its forms suffers, and excellence becomes attainable only for the elite.”

Though Martin pointed out in his column Dragas has previously approved tuition increases, she said her votes were with the hope that changes were on the way.

“I voted for tuition increases in the past because we were assured concrete strategic and long-range financial plans would be forthcoming,” Dragas said in an email. “Years later, I’m still waiting, and asking students to balance a budget because others have been unable to chart a cost-effective path to the future is not acceptable.”

Gould said recent changes to AccessUVa have changed the University’s financial aid program to a system of loan-based aid rather than grant-based assistance. This change will force many University students to take out thousands of dollars in loans and was met with widespread protests last fall.

Martin said part of the tuition increase will go toward an advisee system that will help University students pick a major and find a job in a market that is increasingly competitive.

Gould was supportive of the advisee program in the works.

“[University advising] is something that could definitely use a lot of improvement,” she said.

McCance said the University graduates are among the most hirable in the nation, earning a median salary of $51,000 dollars according to research done by PayScale.

“The University has a strong record of students who succeed in their chosen careers once they leave Grounds,” he said. “In some fields of study and certain programs, every graduate lands a job soon after earning their degree. The demand for U.Va. graduates is remarkable.”

Dragas pointed out in her column, however, that 50 percent of University graduates are under or unemployed.

A recent report released by the University Career Services reported that 46 percent of College graduates were employed either part time or full time, and 30 percent were accepted to a graduate or professional school full time or were pursuing other plans.

Dragas said the University can find solutions to provide “affordable excellence” to students.

“Naturally, no single proposal or initiative will be the magic bullet that reins in the cost of a higher education,” she said. “I see the glass half full, but with a great deal of room left to improve and expand opportunities without breaking the bank in the process.”