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A Clear-eyed Look at the Higher Education Funding Gap

This article by William and Mary President Timothy J. Sullivan, based on information he provided to the Appropriations Committee of the Virginia General Assembly, appeared as an op-ed piece in the Newport News Daily Press on Dec. 4. Ed.

Sometimes defining a problem can be the most critical step toward developing a solution. While that may not be the case in the effort to secure funds to sustain the quality of Virginia’s public colleges and universities, defining the problem in a manner that citizens can understand is indispensable.

Over the past few months, we have been developing a clear definition of the cost of education. Because the arithmetic is simple and the logic is based on goals articulated by the Virginia General Assembly, we believe that the new information can help us address the widening gap between what is needed and what is currently available.

Some years ago, the Virginia General Assembly began to set statewide goals for funding institutions of higher education. Included are the goals of paying faculty members 60 percent of the average salaries of their peers at comparable universities, providing 30 percent of the financial aid needed by Virginia students and, of course, paying staff members – like all state employees – adequate salaries. This thinking was further advanced by the deliberations of the General Assembly’s Joint Sub-Committee on Higher Education Funding Policies. After studying the funding allocated to our educational missions, the bipartisan group of legislators arrived at a so-called “base adequacy” amount needed by each university to operate its core academic programs.

When the costs associated with these goals set by the state are totaled, the College of William and Mary needs approximately $119.3 million annually to operate its core academic programs. This year, our allocation from the General Assembly and revenues from tuition and other sources provide only $97.9 million. This leaves a funding shortfall – as defined by the state’s own guidelines -- of $21.4 million.


The shortfall is large, too large for most of us to comprehend. For that reason, I want to translate it into human terms. William and Mary’s $21.4-million funding gap means that:

— If the funding gap were eliminated, each year we could award an average of $2,100 more in financial aid to qualified Virginia undergraduates.

— Instead of ranking at the state goal of 60th percentile, professors’ salaries now stand near the 23rd percentile of faculty salaries at comparable institutions. Because of this, an exodus of talented professors to other institutions has begun.

— Our library has been forced to cut its purchase of new books by 6,000 volumes per year.

— Approximately 55 percent of the College’s teaching facilities are in poor or very poor condition due to the lack of funds for on-going maintenance.

The true cost of the shortfall to our students is fewer classes, larger classes and, ultimately, increased time to earn a degree. To the Commonwealth, the cost is longer term. It can be measured in the diminished and delayed contributions our students and faculty make to the Virginia economy.

Filling the funding gap is critical to our ability to maintain programs benefiting all Virginians. In 1980, state appropriations provided 42.8 percent of William and Mary’s budget, and tuition and fees for undergraduate Virginians amounted to $1,076. Today, the state provides only 18.7 percent of our budget and, as a result, tuition and fees for undergraduate Virginians have climbed to $6,430. The direct relationship between these two sets of figures is immediately discernable.

Every public college and university in the Commonwealth suffers from the budget gap, and some are substantially higher than William and Mary’s $21.4 million. The plain fact is that someone must fill the gap, and the choices are few. The state can appropriate additional funding, or students and their parents will be forced to pay higher tuition.

As the budget makers in Richmond begin their work, I hope that they will direct some serious consideration to filling this gap over the next few years. If the state decides to pay 40 percent of the educational costs as they did less than a generation ago, then tuition can be kept low. If the state continues to contribute less than 20 percent of our budget, then our only way to maintain the quality of our campuses will be to increase tuition. Thanks to the new definition of the cost of education, the choice is clear.

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