President's message

National disinvestment in higher education?

by Charles Steger '69

A month ago, the university's board of visitors adopted a mid-year tuition increase to partially stanch the flow of red ink resulting from unprecedented losses in state funding. They had no other choice. Tuition at Virginia Tech and other state universities will continue to rise considerably over the next year.

Raising tuition will prevent catastrophic program reductions and eliminations that would have fundamentally changed the character of our university and would have affected thousands of students, possibly forcing them to find another school. In some respects, we would no longer have been viewed as a university. We were faced with the tough decision of either becoming an entirely different institution or significantly raising tuition.

A quick comparison puts these losses into perspective for Virginia Tech. Between 1990 and 1996, this university lost about $45 million in state appropriations to our "base budget." However, in the current fiscal year alone, the university lost $62 million overall. Next year, the losses from the base budget will rise to $72 million overall. In one year, we have lost almost 25 percent of our state appropriation, a figure that will rise to about 30 percent next year.

Virginia is not unique in its plight. Last year, 41 other states also reduced state support for higher education. Yet only three other, and much larger, states--California, Texas, and Michigan--took back more funding, and only one other state, Nebraska, levied greater reductions on a per capita basis.

We understand the impact of the current national recession on state budgets, although Virginia's problem stems as much from tax cutting as from revenue shortfalls. The economic climate notwithstanding, I am troubled by the decade-long trend in Virginia--one that is apparently beginning in other states--of reduced support that systematically erodes the state's commitment to its citizens.

Our country has long advocated taxpayer support of education--elementary, secondary, and college--because of the broad-based societal payback. Although individuals certainly benefit personally from education, economists also speak of the "public good" resulting from investments in education. Educated people make good citizens and good employees.

Are we seeing the abrogation of the implied contract between states and their citizens? I hope not. State support is one very important reason why public university tuition is usually a fraction of private school tuition. Equally important are the benefits to society as well as to the individual: new discoveries and innovations; improvements in our quality of life; greater earning potential for individuals; more competitive businesses and industries; and citizens with the capacity to think critically, a quality that is a cornerstone of democratic society.

Think about it. Is your state disinvesting in education? What dividends will that approach yield in the long run? Is that the future we want?