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Students in Virginia Rally to Fight 25% Tuition Increases

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UPDATE: A new news article published on 10/7 gives details: The UMW's president is now proposing an additional up to 15.5% increase for 2010-2011, on top of an 8.2% increase announced in May, for a total 25% increase over last year, but it's not a done deal yet.

As federal stimulus money runs out, students at public colleges and universities around the country are facing another wave of crushing tuition increases -- "cost shifting" is a term employed by Jane Wellman at the Delta Cost Project to describe what happens when public institutions respond to declines in public funding by raising tuition rather than seriously cutting costs.

At the University of Mary Washington, a public liberal arts institution in Virginia, an unusually bright and articulate student got in touch with me via Twitter to ask for my help in drawing attention to the 25% tuition increase just proposed there. I am familiar with UMW because it's the home of Jim Groom, coiner of the term "Edupunk," and originator of UMW Blogs, an open-source publishing platform for professors and students. Unfortunately, as innovative as these ideas are, they haven't yet crossed the line into saving students real cash.

Ryley Trahan is a sophomore double major in Political Science and English. He also studies Education.

How are you paying for school? Do you have a job?

Well fortunately for me, my dad was a contractor for the Department of Education tracking student loans for a long time (which is actually how I became interested in all this in the first place). Because he was so knowledgeable on the subject of student debt he invested in VPEP (which is the Virginia 529 program) when I was a kid, so that covers my tuition. But to cover my other costs I do have a job. I work as a swim coach, and in the winter I am planning on getting a job as as substitute teacher.

When did UMW announce this tuition increase? What reasons are they giving?

I heard about the tuition increase in the school paper on Sept. 23. According to that article the Virginia state government has cut funding by $5.7 million since 2007. According to our president tuition has to go up 9% if we want to balance the budget and even more if we want to "advance the institution." That is the part that really frustrates me, because it never seems that colleges understand how the business world works. If you find yourself with less money to deliver your product, you don't just up your prices, you cut your costs. But instead the institution is currently renovating two dorms, and is planning to demolish one to rebuild another right on top of it, do the same to the dining hall, as well as build a new parking garage and a performing arts center ). As if that weren't enough, they've also started building a new building at the Master's campus in Stafford and are starting to build a third campus. So the reasons they're giving for the increase seems to be slightly different than the actual reasons.

What are you and other students doing about it? What are you planning on 10/14?

The rally, "Speak Up or Pay Up," has two main ideas behind it. The first is to explain to the student body and the administration that tuition hikes are not the answer to everything. While it has become the prevailing trend in higher education to just continuously build things to attract new students, we feel that UMW does not need to take part in that rat race. The school is only 4,000 undergrads, and that is part of why we all like it so much. The new president wants to build it up with our tuition money, to eventually attract more students. Our main goal is to make it perfectly clear that we will only accept campus improvement projects if the money already exists to back it, and that we will only accept tuition increases if the money is obviously going to go towards improving out education.

The second part of our plan for 10/14 is to convince the UMW BOV to adopt a new policy: that all tuition increases will only be applied to students who are not enrolled or awaiting acceptance into the school. The theory behind this is that students should be aware of all financial obligations when they commit to spending four years at the institution. Again though, we want the BOV to increase tuition only when there is a direct correlation between what we are spending and the education we get out of it.

Anything else you have to say about the fight for affordable education?
One of the most interesting statistics I discovered when I was doing the math to prepare for "Speak Up or Pay Up" was the actual effects of the tuition increase. Clark Howard on CNN recently ran a story saying that, in order for students to keep their debt manageable, the total debt they owe for the four years of their education should be less than the expected starting salary with their degree. Right now, UMW tuition for four years is less than the expected starting salary from a liberal arts institution. After the 25% increase however, the cost of four years of tuition is greater than expected salary -- and that's to say nothing about room & board.

Colleges need to become more focused on what they actually exist for: educating students and getting them jobs in their field of choice. Until schools start doing this, and stop building new Athletic Centers and $16 million apartment complexes to attract more students, to get more money, to build more things, the system will be broken.