Information campaign vital to Virginia's universities

by Charles W. Steger, '69

The Virginia General Assembly: Virginia colleges and universities are underfunded by about $200 million per year compared to peer universities in other states.

The Virginia General Public: About 55 percent of Virginians think that spending for state colleges and universities is "about right." 1

Where's the disconnect?

In an effort to raise public understanding about the deficiency in funding for the state's colleges and universities, the Virginia Business Higher Education Council (VBHEC) launched the "It's Time to Fund Our Future" information campaign earlier this year. The importance of educating the public about funding needs was demonstrated when the General Assembly's Joint Legislative Commission on Higher Education Funding Policies released the results of an exhaustive two-year study. The report, which was released in December 2000, confirmed what many have suspected for some time: Virginia state support for its higher education institutions falls far short of other states.

The legislative study group compared state universities to their peers around the nation. It found that an additional $200 million in annual support is needed to bring our schools to the average. Virginia Tech's share is about $20 million per year.

And Tech is quite poorly funded compared to its peers. Of 21 public peer universities, Tech ranks 17th in state funding per student. As a point of comparison, consider Tech's North Carolina equivalent, North Carolina State University. In 1998-99, NC State

Information campaign vital to Virginia's universities received $14,800 per student from North Carolina, while Virginia Tech received $7,900 per student from Virginia.

Other Virginia schools suffer similarly unfavorable comparisons. For example, the University of Virginia ranks 14th of 15 peers, George Mason ranks 23rd of 23, and James Madison ranks 18th compared to its 18 peer universities.

Virginia has never lavished funds on its colleges and universities. Compared to other states, it was on par with the national average, ranking as high as 28th in the late 1980s. However, the recession of the early 1990s caused the state to slash its appropriations for higher education, and Virginia ranked as low as 43rd in the mid-1990s. While some progress was made during the decade, the joint legislative study demonstrates higher education funding never fully recovered.

Excellence doesn't come cheaply, and Virginia does not spend extravagantly. We are fortunate to have some of the nation's top universities, even though the state's investment is below the national average. However, the commonwealth's aspirations to become world class in many fields demand much more. The state currently ranks about 35th compared to other states in per student appropriations.

Capital funding throughout the 1990s has been erratic. The state bond campaign of 1992 infused $472 million for college projects into the system, but that came only after many years of funding drought. Since then, the state's colleges and universities have accumulated $2.1 billion in building needs. More than one half of that amount is to renovate outmoded buildings. Virginia Tech accounts for $118 million of that backlog.

Major state newspapers question Virginia's low-funding approach. The Virginian Pilot stated on April 15, 2001, that "While North Carolina has invested in its research universities-- the mothers of economic advancement in modern times--Virginia has pursued a low-tax, low-spend policy that starves higher education and mocks our claim to be the Silicon Dominion."

According to the March 17, 2001, edition of the Newport News Daily Press, "Virginia faces a fundamental problem. We must decide what kind of future we want to offer the next generation. If we don't provide colleges for them here, they will look elsewhere. Once they leave the state, their talent will often be lost forever."

VBHEC leadership notes that it will be doubly difficult to handle the 43,000 additional students projected to attend college in Virginia by 2010 when those currently in the system are not adequately funded. It now appears that state revenue projections for the upcoming year may not be rosy, making securing adequate funding challenging.

Friends and supporters of Virginia Tech, it is important that you are aware of these crucial funding needs. This is an issue faced by not only our great university, but by Virginia's other nationally recognized institutions as well. It is my hope that by making the public aware of this critical problem, we will be taking the first step toward solving it.

Editor's Note: The Virginia Business Higher Education Council is an advocacy group of state business leaders formed in 1993 to press for adequate state support of higher education. For more information, check out these online information sources: or

1 Virginia Tech Center for Survey Research Quality of Life Survey for 2001