Former Virginia governor (2006-2010) and U.S. Senate candidate Tim Kaine (D) held a forum Thursday with Northern Virginia students and parents on the future of higher education.
About 30 people gathered at in Burke. Kaine's staff said invitations to the event were based on recommendations from local education and political leaders.
"The United States has dropped from first to 16th in the world for the number of 20 to 30 year-olds who complete some form of higher education after high school," Kaine told those gathered. "We still lead the world in the number of kids who start college," he said. "Kids say they had enough to get started but not finish. The thing we really have to do is make higher education more affordable."
Grants and Loans
Kaine praised President Obama's recent expansion of the Pell Grant program, and urged Congress to extend the low-interest rate on Stafford Loans. "Some 177,000 Virginia students with Stafford Loans will see their interest rates double if Congress doesn't step in before the end of the month," he said. The bill which lowered rates to 3.4 percent expires July 1, 2012, and the interest rate for 2012-13 would rise to 6.8 percent.
One student countered Kaine, saying that sometimes as Congress increases grants and loans available for higher education, colleges respond by raising tuition.
Kaine agreed. "We need strategies for holding down the cost," he said.
"College affordability is not a Democrat or Republican issue," Kaine said. "It's a Democrat, Republican and Independent issue. There is no one-size-fits-all answer for this."
"The primary solution is less about financial aid and more about providing motivation to reduce cost," said Kaine. "Let each institution figure out what they can do to cut costs, and from there we can develop best practices," he said, adding he believes cost-reduction strategies would have bipartisan support.
Sarah Stucker, a 2010 Woodson High School graduate, spent several semesters at out-of-state four-year public universities, but returned to take classes at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). "I was last at UNC Greensboro, and it was too expensive," Stucker said. "NOVA is much more affordable, and I don't feel the stress that I have to finish in four years," she said.
"I have the freedom to explore in different subject areas without killing myself financially," she said. "If you go into college with a major, that locks you in and prevents you from exploring, because there are so many specific requirements."
Stucker said even trying to complete all the degree requirements in four years is challenging, because so few of the needed classes are offered each semester, and they fill quickly. "If you can't get into a class you need, it puts you a semester behind, which then adds to the cost," she said.
A young man currently attending the University of Mary Washington said colleges need to hold down their costs, too. "I have friends who started at the school but can't finish because the cost has risen from $17,000 a year to $21,000 a year in just the short time they've attended," he said.
A young woman said millions were spent at James Madison University for a new football stadium, but nothing for new teachers for the classes students need to graduate.
Another suggested colleges should provide a fifth-year tuition free to students who are not able to complete their required courses due to lack of classes and teachers.
Kaine said many colleges invest in the "wow factor" to attract students. "Perhaps they should instead ask, 'Is this necessary for the academic mission of this university?' We need high quality, low cost, not a lot of frills places of higher education," he said.
Class Sizes at Virginia Schools
Students attending the forum complained about the difficulty Northern Virginia students have being accepted into state schools. Kaine praised Governor Bob McDonnell for working with Virginia universities to increase the size of incoming classes.
"We've added more than 10 percent to Virginia's population in the last 10 years," Kaine said. "But incoming class sizes have not increased. Governor McDonnell is doing a good job encouraging universities to move toward reasonable growth expectations without threatening the character of the school," he said.
The Forced Resignation of UVA President Teresa Sullivan
Kaine was asked about this week's forced resignation of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. "I was in Charlottesville two days ago, and I am completely shocked at what's going on there," he said.
"In my last month as Governor, the UVA Board [of Visitors] -- all appointed by me -- introduced Teresa Sullivan," he said. "Her appointment was great for the school," he said. "I've not heard a single negative thing about Teresa Sullivan," he said.
"The Board made a huge mistake," he said.
"It appears three board members made a decision and called other board members," said Kaine. "Some board members were not in the loop."
"The apparent reason for the parting of ways is a difference in philosophy," said Kaine, adding that this should have been discussed. "The fact that the board didn't have a meeting ... makes this the fault of the entire board," he said.
"I hope the current discussion about going back and having the discussion comes to pass, because what the board did is a very grievous thing," he said.