Senate Finance Committee Panel

Oct. 18, 2012
General Assembly Building, 10th Floor, Richmond, Virginia

Thank you for having us here today.

The commonwealth is very fortunate to have an excellent collection of public institutions that include research universities, liberal arts institutions and community colleges. We recognize the value and importance of fully embracing the mission of public universities. I see our role as a partnership between the university and the people of the commonwealth.

The fact that tuition has increased is as disturbing to us as it is to you. We understand that even small increases are an issue for many families who have not seen their incomes increase for the last several years. We are described by many as “Virginia’s University” because we educate more Virginians than any other university; a high proportion of them are low- and middle-income students.

Universities must operate efficiently. We need to pay the same bills as other businesses, and at the same time seek dramatic efficiencies to minimize expenses. We are in a very challenging economic climate, and are committed to working with you as our most important partner. We appreciate everything you have done as our partners.

As part of our partnership with the commonwealth, we are doing everything we can to keep costs down for our students and their families.

We’re looking at efficiencies and reallocations, keeping our focus on our priorities and the state’s priorities. We’re making a number of reallocations toward what matters, and that is helping more students graduate as leader in their fields, which is in line with the state’s Top Jobs 21 Act. The emphasis on STEM-H is not low-cost, especially with regard to facilities and attracting and retaining competitive faculty.

You may have seen the Goldwater Institute’s report last year that said VCU was the most-efficient research university in the nation.

We are also committed to being more entrepreneurial. We have a range of “green” initiatives on campus, from recycling water in residence halls to a new energy partnership with Dominion. We have more efficient and effective campus transportation systems. We have eliminated state-owned cell phones, and we’re looking at strategic partnerships with other universities and agencies where we can leverage each other’s resources.

We are raising the bar at VCU in many ways. As a research university, we are ensuring that students who are accepted to VCU are ready to succeed at and graduate from a research university. This is really a cost-saving measure for students: We don’t want students to incur debt for classes they will not complete.

One of the strongest elements of our strategic plan focuses on helping students graduate in four years. Along with other universities, we led the charge to forge stronger partnerships with community colleges and signed a systemwide agreement to help students complete their bachelor’s degree. I thank my colleague Glenn DuBois for his partnership on this initiative.

We now have recruiters and staff at some of the community college campuses in Virginia. We have a new one-stop transfer center; we give community college student access to the VCU campus and events, including our library; and we have a number of program-specific articulation agreements. All of this is making graduating from VCU even more affordable.

This will require investments in faculty and staff, living and learning space, and financial aid, so that students can focus on school, not having to work. We’re also adding more online courses to help improve access. This helps, especially with capital and space issues, but it is not a panacea.

The best way to make college affordable to all students is to help them graduate on time. To help students get through in four years, we’re also focusing on private fundraising, though our Opportunity VCU Campaign, which has raised and distributed about $4 million in private funds for scholarships. Over the last three years, we’ve also almost tripled the amount of institutional aid for low- and middle-income students to a little less than $8 million.

It is not enough.

Our students have demonstrated a need for financial aid. At many places, about 30 to 50 percent of students require some sort of financial aid to pay for their education. At VCU, it’s 52 percent. The average aid package for a VCU student covers about half of their tuition and fees, which is comparable to the national average, according to the College Board. Students at VCU, and around the nation, are often making up the difference — paying for that other half — with loans, and that concerns us.

VCU students mirror the national trend of incurring increasing debt. It’s about $27,000 for a typical VCU undergraduate, about the same as some prominent private institutions. It’s important to note that this average is only for those students who graduate with some debt: About 43 percent of our students graduate without debt.

The incurrence of debt is troubling, especially for those students whose lives could be most transformed by higher education. According to the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education, the most underserved populations are least able to afford tuition without aid, least likely to enroll in college and least likely to graduate if they do enroll. The reason, around the nation as at VCU, is that student financial aid has not kept pace with tuition, exacerbating the problem.

These are students who could be society’s game-changers. Yet the combination of rising tuition and the lack of available financial aid makes it less and less likely that more Americans will achieve the American dream.

Diversity in the student body is a significant part of the learning experience at VCU. And by that, I mean diversity in all of the ways that people are diverse, including socio-economic diversity. If we do not have enough financial aid, we cannot attract the diversity — and the great learning experience — that we need.

At VCU, we will admit a student based on his or her ability to succeed here and graduate, not his or her ability to pay. We have to look at all sources of revenues, ranging from privately raised scholarships to tuition, to fund competitive aid for competitive students. As a research university, we have to make it possible for all qualified students to enroll — without financial barriers.

We are part of a great partnership, and we are proud to be one of the commonwealth’s outstanding public institutions. This is a challenging but wonderful time to be in public higher education, and all of us are absolutely committed to serving the citizens and the state of Virginia. I have great optimism for where we’re going, and I’m grateful for the support of the General Assembly.

Thank you.