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Deconstructing “Affordable Excellence”

Examining forthcoming tuition increases

The Board of Visitors passed a decision to increase student’s tuition March 24 in a model known as "Affordable Excellence."

Beginning in the 2015-2016 academic year, all in-state students will pay a 3.9% increase in tuition and all out-of-state students will pay a 3.7% increase. Incoming in-state students will also be subject to a $1,000 step increase for the 2015-2016 academic school year. In 2016-2017 incoming in-state students will also be subject to an additional $1,000 step increase in prices.

Beyond the base changes in tuition costs, Affordable Excellence is a multifaceted model designed with the intention to make the University more accessible to lower-income Virginian students, as well as to increase funding for classroom technology and salaries for established faculty members.

Rationalizing the increase

The increase in tuition is indicative of the financial shortcomings the University has faced since Virginia state legislation reduced the percentage of aid to higher-education. The University’s own routes for funding have proved insufficient to cover the gap left by the lack of government assistance.

Currently, state appropriation provides the University with 10.2% of its funding, while tuition constitutes 32.4% and endowment and donations equating to 19.4%.

Before resorting to a significant tuition increase the Board of Visitors pursued several alternative routes to fund the deficit including restructuring debt, redistributing endowment spending and balancing current investments and philanthropic donations.

University President Teresa Sullivan said the Board reviewed each option, but was unable to formulate the money necessary to keep the University a top-tier institution that both meets financial needs for all students and maintains competitive faculty salaries and technological resources.

“Several of our Board members have committed themselves to this,” Sullivan said, regarding the University’s financial reform. “They ended up with a definition which I think is interesting — the University is affordable if students leave with the smallest amount of debt.”

Though there is a gross increase in costs for students attending the University, the ultimate goal is to make the University more accessible without compromising quality.

Under the Affordable Excellence model, low-income Virginians can take out $4,000 worth of need-based loans when previously they could take out $14,000. All other Virginians who demonstrate need may take out a maximum of $18,000 in need-based loans, down from the previous $28,000.

President Sullivan said the University’s Affordable Excellence Plan was heavily influenced by William & Mary’s “Promise,” a similar model passed in April of 2013 that increased students’ tuition in order to increase grant-based aid.

The William & Mary Promise was also a multifaceted model, with key pieces stressing predictability through a tuition guarantee, increased grant aid for Virginia families who qualify for need-based aid, more seats for Virginia undergraduates, increased innovation and more funding to provide faculty with competitive salaries.

Samuel E. Jones, Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration at William & Mary, said that despite the increased tuition, the general response to the Promise model was positive.

“Because our Board set tuition early, when students made that decision to come to William & Mary they knew what the price was” Jones said. “Generally we found that folks like the guarantee. That really helps them in the family planning that goes along with getting a child through college.”

Furthermore, Jones said initiating a high-tuition, high-aid model helped low and middle income students by reducing the maximum amount of loans they could take out and subsidizing the difference with grants. As a result the average net cost to attend the college increased for Virginian families while the average accumulated debt decreased.

“We recognize there are some families that can pay full freight at whatever price we’re setting and they can make a value judgment,” Jones said.

Funding socioeconomic diversity

In theory, the Affordable Excellence model will reduce the net cost of a University degree for 70% of Virginian families.

However, concerns have been raised by students representative groups that fear the model could discourage lower-income families from applying to the University and subsequently decrease socioeconomic diversity.

If the William & Mary Promise is to act as a model, then these concerns will not come to fruition. Jones said the socioeconomic diversity figures of William & Mary have not diminished since the induction of the Promise after April of 2013.

“Our application numbers are up and ultimately the quality of students and the diversity of that from a socioeconomic perspective have stayed from pre-Promise,” Jones said.

Sullivan said the goal of the plan in terms of high aid is to provide students with the maximum amount of opportunity and quality of education possible given the University’s financial circumstances.

“If students have minimal debt when they leave the university they have more job opportunities open to them, it opens up realistically the opportunity for some people to go to medical and law school,” Sullivan said. “If you don’t leave with a whole lot of debt you might be willing to take on more for a professional or a graduate degree.”

As of the 2013-2014 academic year, the University’s average student debt was $22,933, which included need-based loans and loan debt. In comparison, the state average is $25,017 and the nationwide average is $29,309. Under Affordable Excellence, there should be a decrease in $10,000 for maximum student indebtedness for qualifying Virginian students.

Jones echoed such Sullivan’s sentiments.

“There is a variation on theme but were all trying to get the best institution we have and make sure students get educated in the best possible way,” Jones said.

Student response

The decision to increase tuition costs has been met with a great deal of student opposition. Students led several protests on Grounds on March 24 during the Board of Visitors meetings to vocalize their discontent with the rise in tuition.

Students publicly demonstrated with signs outside the Special Collections Library where the Board of Visitors meetings were being held in private.

Fourth-year Batten student Gabrielle Jorgensen said the decision was problematic as she was disappointed by the lack of transparency in administration, in particular with that of Batten which had a parallel increase in tuition of 40% for incoming students.

“I was honestly pretty disappointed with the administration in Batten just because they try really hard to be transparent with us and they pride themselves on including students in decision making, but we felt blindsided,” Jorgensen said.

Jorgensen also expressed concern that the plan to adequately finance the deficit by increasing tuition would not prove successful.

“I like the idea of redistributing that money to students who can’t afford it,” Jorgensen said. “Although I don’t know if i’m entirely convinced that it will pan out the way they think that it will.”

In response to the student protests, Sullivan said she understands the reasoning but thought students did not fully comprehend the details of the model before acting.

“I think a lot of people did not understand it, they didn’t know who it applied to” Sullivan said about the Affordable Excellence model. “I think it was unfortunate that there wasn’t better understanding.”

Sullivan also noted that regardless of the protest, the Board has finalized the decision.

“You can’t take away from a deliberate body the right to deliberate," Sullivan said.

Going forward, tuition will be set at a constant rate. Unless dire economic need arises, the Affordable Excellence model promises there will not be a rise in tuition beyond the set figures, which typically rise in accordance with inflation regularly each year.

“Barring some unforeseen circumstances, tuition going forward will typically be inflation plus one percent” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said she does not anticipate any struggles ahead for the Affordable Excellence model.

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