At its final meeting last spring, the VCU Board of Visitors voted on tuition increases for the 2013-14 academic year. The majority of the Board supported a 4.2 percent increase for returning students and an increase of 21 percent to 27 percent for new incoming students. Alex McMurtrie and I were the two Board members who publicly spoke out against the proposal and voted against it.
Our decision to resist the pressures to have unanimous Board support for the increases was not taken lightly. But we felt that the administration’s proposal, especially the massive increase for new incoming students, undermined VCU’s historic commitment to affordability and accessibility, will burden VCU students and their parents with an unacceptable debt load and was conveyed in a manner that downplayed and perhaps even disguised the extent of the increase.
Let me try to briefly explain each of these points.
Affordability and Accessibility
Throughout its history, VCU has been a university that has had a special responsibility in the commonwealth to providing an affordable, world-class education and economic opportunity to first generation college students and to groups who have been traditionally underserved. For example, the average parental income of VCU students has traditionally been far lower than that of students at the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary. Given this situation, VCU has historically worked to maintain tuition at the lowest possible level while providing our students with educational opportunities that equal or exceed those of any institution in Virginia.
I believe decisions that have been made in the last few years to jack up tuition at rates exceeding 20 percent are effectively subverting the VCU’s traditional commitment to affordability and accessibility. As a Board member, I have become extremely concerned, for instance, that the percentage of African-American students in VCU’s freshman class has apparently dropped by about 30 percent in the last four years.
Crushing Student Debt
In almost every study that I have seen, VCU students already carry an extraordinarily high debt load. According to the Project on Student Debt, VCU students currently have the second highest debt service of any public university in Virginia. More than 62 percent of our students graduate with debt and the average debt load now exceeds $27,000.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the implications of the recent tuition increases for this debt load. Given the importance of a college education to economic opportunity, I doubt that many students will forego attending VCU. But what will happen, without a doubt, is student and parents are likely to increase the amount of debt that they assume by a considerable amount in order to obtain the advantages that VCU provides. The decision to raise tuition by 21 percent to 27 percent for incoming students is effectively a decision to saddle VCU students with the highest debt load of any public university in the commonwealth.
One of the reasons that Mr. McMurtrie and I were so vocal at the Board meeting in calling attention to the massive increase for incoming students is that it was originally portrayed as simply a change in pricing structure (moving to pay per-credit hour pricing) and not as a tuition hike.
Indeed, none of the original materials that I received called it an increase. In addition, I have been personally told by a number of people in the governor’s office that they were not informed an increase of this size was being contemplated.
Yet every independent, subsequent analysis of what occurred has reinforced the notion that new, incoming students who will be taking enough credits each semester (15-18 credit hours) to graduate in four years are facing a huge tuition hike. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee of the Virginia General Assembly issued a report on tuition and fees in the commonwealth clearly stating that VCU’s tuition increase for new students was a minimum of 21 percent.
My only regret in voting against the tuition hike was that Mr. McMurtrie and I were not able to convince the majority of the Board to see things our way. I am optimistic that by publicly airing our concerns, it will become increasingly difficult to continue making these massive increases in the future.
Robert Holsworth is a member of the VCU Board of Visitors and a former Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.