Are We Prepared?

"Colleges Brace for Influx of Boomer's Children" The Washington Post, August 22, 1996

"Students Head to School in Record Numbers This Fall" The Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 22, 1996

Virginia Tech has heard the first sound of the "baby boom echo." The class that started school in 1996 is by far the largest on record--slightly more than 5,000 students. And we denied admission to 4,000 students, another record. As news reports indicate, the predicted enrollment bulge is now making its way through the state's K-12 school systems and will soon hit Virginia's colleges and universities. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, high-school graduates in Virginia will increase by 35 percent in the next 10 years. They will expect a place in the commonwealth's colleges and universities. Will we be ready for them?

The state has asked all colleges and universities to increase enrollment to accommodate the projected surge. We plan to have slightly larger than normal first-year classes for the next few years, but it is unlikely we will see 5,000 freshmen again. Because of increased demand, we anticipate having to deny admission to larger numbers of students. The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors is firm in its policy that enrollment in Blacksburg will not exceed 25,000--and this year it is 24,800.

Our society has always placed a high value on education. Today, the ability to have a choice about one's future in a world economy driven by knowledge and information is largely dependent upon advanced education.

This nation has long supported the notion of publicly supported schools. In the latter part of this century, we extended the right of education to higher education. The GI Bill, which began as a "thank you" to the WWII veterans, had the unexpected bonus of helping to fuel the post WWII economic expansion with bright young scientists, managers, and executives. The same GI Bill helped Dot and me through graduate school after the Korean War. The veterans' children, the famous baby boom generation, benefited immensely from the world's largest expansion of higher education offerings.

However, I fear for the next generation. We hear voices that either deny the reality of projected student increases (for Tech the reality is already here) or deny the obligations of the citizenry to support those who desire to improve themselves and their society through education. Recently, we have been spending much more on those who seek to improve their lot through crime. Will we, as a society, have the fortitude to make sacrifices necessary to extend a helping hand to the next generation?

This may sound like an old saw, but I offer no apologies. Can a state that funds higher education at a level less than 42 other states really be committed to education? Can a state that slashes appropriations to higher education and allows tuitions to rise to some of the highest in the nation really be committed to higher education? In the Southeast, only Mississippi and West Virginia support their research universities at a lower level per student than does Virginia.

After six years of slashing budgets, Virginia increased operating funds for education by $100 million per year for the 1996-98 biennium. While this reversal of the trend is heartening, funding per student, adjusted for inflation, will be 16 percent less in 1998 than it was in 1990. The state's economy is strong. The governor's economic development initiatives are working and are to be commended. Additional appropriations must be made to accommodate the next generation of students, which is literally at our doorsteps.

Some now question projections that predict an increase of about 60,000 students over the next decade in Virginia's colleges and universities. While there is some margin for error, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which prepares these forecasts, has traditionally predicted enrollments within 1 percent of the actual figure.

I sincerely hope that the demands on the state budget do not cause our policy leaders to look for shortcuts that could limit the state's obligation to its youth.

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