Sunday, February 20, 2005
Editorial: For higher ed, stability, accountability
Pending legislation makes it clear that tuition levels at Virginia's state colleges are closely related to the size of state higher-ed appropriations.
From the RoundTable blog
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Initially proposed by the three institutions best positioned by virtue of size and access to nonstate dollars to manage their own affairs, the legislation now would affect all the commonwealth's colleges and universities. However, the three that initiated the effort - the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and the College of William and Mary - would enjoy the highest level of autonomy, under six-year plans agreed to with the state. In a sense, none of this is particularly new. The colleges and universities would continue to be state institutions. Virginia has always had a decentralized system for four-year institutions. That the state's colleges don't all occupy the same tiers in the higher-education firmament has long been recognized.
But certain operational efficiencies would be new, and would benefit particularly the largest institutions that have the resources to handle complicated projects on their own. They would be freed from some of the preapprovals and red tape they now must navigate, even on projects involving nontaxpayer money.
And greater financial stability in the face of uncertain state funding - probably the single most important goal of the initiative - should help all participating institutions.
In tight budget times, higher-ed appropriations tend to be first on the chopping block, in the belief that the colleges - unlike, say, public schools or prisons - can always raise tuitions to offset the state cutbacks.
Tuition-raising, however, has practical limits, and the practice of swapping budget cuts for tuition boosts sometimes puts the colleges at the mercy of irresponsible politicians who push for both less state spending and lower tuition.
By linking the size of tuition increases to state funding levels, the reforms should enable higher-ed officials to do longer-range planning with reasonable assurance that money will be available to put it into effect.
And if it turns out that tuition increases must speed up again, the linkage should remind students and their families that the fault lies less on the campuses than in Richmond.