Paying for college

“Go to college.” We hear it from parents, teachers, and talking heads citing stats about unemployment and lifetime earnings potential.[1] They tell us because they did, and it changed their lives; they tell us because they didn’t, and they want to change ours.

And they’re right. A college degree is the economic engine of the middle class, supplying Virginia’s young people with the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in the 21st century global economy. By the end of the decade, 8 in 10 new jobs will require post-secondary education.[2]We need to be ready for those jobs.

But to do this successfully, our generation has to meet new challenges that threaten the economic and social advantages that have made college such a good investment in the past.

Student Debt

The education we’ve never needed more has never been less affordable. Soaring college costs fueled by the recession and related cuts to public funding have left many unable to afford a degree without excessive debt—or at all.

debt-stats-smaller2Tuition and fees nationwide have exploded over 400 percent within our lifetimes, and the nation’s student loan debt now eclipses credit card debt.[3] In Virginia, per-student state funding was slashed over $5,000 between 2001 and 2011, while per-student borrowing jumped by the same margin.[4] Last year alone, students at Virginia’s public colleges and universities borrowed over $735,000,000.[5]

These trends are unsustainable.


On average, 56.7% of Virginia’s college freshmen will graduate within six years.[6] That’s a few points above the national average—but it needs to be much better. With the financial costs of attending college and the opportunity costs of dropping out continuing to soar, it’s critical that students finish the degrees they start.

At the same time, those degrees must reflect the tradition of excellence long maintained by Virginia’s public colleges and universities. Although students are paying more now than ever before, national numbers point to shrinking teaching investments coupled with questionable learning outcomes. In 1960, 75% of college courses were taught by tenured or tenure-track professors; now, 73% are taught by contingent faculty or graduate students. Meanwhile, a 2011 study suggested that up to 45% of students show no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing skills during their first two years of college.[7]

Keeping higher education affordable shouldn’t cost us quality, and focusing on increased enrollment shouldn’t overshadow the need for successful learning outcomes and completion rates once students arrive.


“Go to college” doesn’t cut it anymore.

Four-year university, community college, or workforce training? Private, public, or for-profit? Full-time, part-time, or online? How do we fund our studies, and how do we choose studies that will one day fund us?  How do we split time between the courses we need to graduate, the hourly jobs we need to eat, and the internships we need to compete?

The answers are different for each of us. But the mounting challenges of getting them right, and the long-terms costs of getting them wrong, are familiar to all of us. We need access to accurate, current, user-friendly tools and information to make the smart decisions that will lead to successful outcomes.

Join Us

So while our parents may be right, the game has changed since they made decisions about going to college. It’s being played against the odds, for higher stakes, and by more complex and rapidly-changing rules. Virginia21 empowers us to level that playing field – and make sure college remains a winning decision for our generation – by taking action and staying informed.


[1] The typical college graduate earns an estimated $650,000 more than the typical high school graduate during a 40-year work life, according to a recent Pew Center report. As of March 2010, the unemployment rate of those with a bachelors degree or higher (5%) was less than half that of those with only a high school degree (11%) – a gap that has persisted through multiple decades and both economic upswings and downturns.

[2]  National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, “Linking Higher Education with Workforce and Economic Development,” April 2009.

[3] National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, “Measuring Up 2008,” 2008. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “Grading Student Loans,” March 2012.

[4] State Council of Higher Education for Virginia data

[5] Ibid.

[6] American Enterprise Institute, “Diplomas and Dropouts,” July 2009.

[7] Arum, Richard and Josipa Roska.  Academically Adrift: Limited Learning On College Campuses.  University of Chicago Press, 2011.