College life prompts a lot of questions about serious topics, including college costs. We took the opportunity to address head-on some of the most common questions we hear with the help of the people at Longwood who work most closely with these issues.
Below we talk about college costs with Justin Pope, Vice President and Chief of Staff to President Reveley since 2013, and before that a journalist who covered higher education for The Associated Press and wrote frequently about issues related to college costs.
For a full-time student this year, tuition and fees plus room and board at Longwood run a little under $25,000. Why do college, and Longwood in particular, cost so much?
We try to start every conversation we have on campus about tuition costs from a position of humility, recognizing how big and important an investment this is for families. It’s probably the biggest investment a family makes, along with buying a home. But unlike buying a home, the economics of college are really hard to get your head around. That’s true even for me, after spending a decade as a journalist writing about this topic more than any other before I came to Longwood. Also as a parent of two children myself, I know that feeling of worry and unfairness – “this seemed easier for past generations. Why is it so hard now?”
The main reason a college like Longwood is so expensive is it’s a people-intensive endeavor, and any enterprise that relies on people instead of automation is going to get relatively more expensive over time. The short answer to “where do my tuition dollars go?” is “people” – pay and health care accounts for about 80 percent of what we spend money on. The heart of Longwood is highly educated faculty and staff we must recruit, support and retain – because it’s human beings who best teach and transform the lives of our students.
College just isn’t like a factory, or at least it shouldn’t be. Of course we always strive to find ways to be more efficient. Conceivably we could speed it up, or “scale up” by doubling or tripling our class sizes, or even just place students in front of video screens. But we know, genuinely from centuries of experience, that doesn’t work.
If faculty and staff are really what drives college costs, do you need so many?
We run a pretty lean operation compared to most institutions, with most of our administrative functions centralized, rather than spread out at different colleges, as you’d find elsewhere. But Longwood’s commitment to small class sizes taught by full-time faculty is what really set us apart from other public universities, so we’re really investing in that. And that means more people.
That’s especially true in our new Civitae Core Curriculum. At most colleges, general education courses (the classes everyone takes, regardless of major) mean giant lecture halls. At Longwood, we’re capping those courses at 25 students. We believe Longwood works best and produces the best outcomes when students learn in small settings from experienced, full-time faculty who make their careers here. Most places are adding so-called “adjunct” faculty, but over the last five years, we’ve added about 40 full-time faculty positions.
What about non-faculty employees?
It’s true that Longwood, like most other places, has more non-faculty employees than we used to. Colleges are criticized for that trend, and sometimes that’s fair. But staff have a big impact on students, too, and often in areas that once weren’t even on the radar screen for colleges but must be now.
It takes about 40 well-trained IT professionals to keep our networks and the teaching and research technology our faculty use running and secure. We run an internationally accredited counseling center, with four full-time staff and numerous trainees, along with a disabilities resources office. We have a nationally accredited, highly trained and equipped police force with 19 sworn officers. All of those are areas where even a generation ago, it seemed fine for a college to do almost nothing. Now these services are understandably expected by families and considered essential.
What about all those new buildings I see on campus? Are my tuition and fee dollars paying to build them?
For the most part, no. Separate from the annual budget support, the Commonwealth of Virginia in recent years has provided a tremendous amount of support to Longwood for construction and improvements – altogether around $70 million. The recently completed Brock Hall student success center, and the new admissions and academic buildings now under construction – all were funded by the state. The new music education building in the pipeline will be a state project. Other projects like residence hall renovations and the new Upchurch University Center (the student center) have been funded by a mix of philanthropy and student auxiliary fees, so some of a family’s overall bill does support the costs of those buildings.
Longwood is a Virginia public university. What does that mean, and why does it still cost so much?
Longwood is tremendously proud to be among the 15 four-year public universities in Virginia – very arguably, the best group of public institutions of any state. The General Assembly has been very generous to Longwood in funding buildings and the state’s operating support of about $28 million annually is what enables us to charge a list price about half what many private institutions charge. That’s a big difference.
That said, what being a public university means in practical financial terms has changed a lot. As recently as the 1980s, the state covered around 60 percent of Longwood’s operating budget. Today, the figure is less than 25 percent. Not just in Virginia, but almost everywhere, amidst a range of budget pressures state governments have left it up to families to pick up the lion’s share of the cost of a college education, not the public as a whole. So being public makes a real difference in the price of Longwood. But it’s only part of the equation.
What is Longwood doing to keep tuition increases down?
I can say with confidence: more than just about anybody else in Virginia. To reiterate, our starting point is true humility about what a large investment college is for most families, and our responsibility to do everything we can make it affordable without diminishing quality. We keep tuition as low as we can, and we make the budget work from there.
President Reveley writes and speaks often about affordability being both an economic and a moral imperative, and he’s been determined that Longwood be a leader in the Commonwealth in this year. His first year in office our increase was 2.1 percent, the lowest anywhere in Virginia in more than a decade. On average since then the annual increase has been 3.3 percent, lower than 14 of the other 15 Virginia public universities.
What about next year?
This coming year’s rates will be determined by the Board in May, but we’re hoping and expecting to hold tuition flat.
What else is Longwood doing to ensure it remains affordable?
A top priority is increasing scholarship dollars for students – for families what matters most is what they pay after financial aid, not necessarily the list price. More than half of Longwood students receive some form of grant aid, either from the university or outside sources, that reduces the price they pay for college. Overall our students receive around $18 million annually in scholarships and grants, including state and federal grants and our own scholarship funds. In terms of philanthropy, Longwood used to try to raise money for new buildings, for programs, for all sorts of things. We still do, but we’ve really made raising money for scholarships the big focus.
There’s also been a big effort to deploy financial aid more effectively – both our own financial aid dollars and helping our students navigate the FAFSA process to apply for all the federal support they might be eligible to receive. Last year we rolled out a new portal called Academic Works that shows them what scholarships they might be eligible for and helping them apply. It’s made a real difference in making students aware of scholarship dollars they might be able to access – we’ve doubled usage among students just by making it easier to use.
What else should families be thinking about in order to minimize college costs?
One area that’s hugely important but gets less public attention than it should: the importance of graduating in four years. That limits cost of living expenses in college, and gets you more quickly into a career, where you’re earning money, not just spending it.
We’ve worked very hard to help more students get through in four, which is less common nationally than people might think. Longwood’s proportion of students who graduate within four years ranks within about the top 15 percent nationally among four-year public universities, and has climbed substantially in recent years. We’re also looking closely at ways to encourage and incentivize people to take a full credit load, because we have solid evidence – actually incredibly powerful data -- both here and nationally that it helps students graduate faster. And perhaps surprisingly, students who take more credits at a time not only get through faster but actually have much higher GPAs.
The new Civitae Core Curriculum is making the path through the curriculum much more efficient. The goal is for it to be simply expected that undergraduates spend four years at Longwood, with only a few exceptions.
The financial aid package I received from Longwood isn’t as much as I need or think I should be getting. What can I do?
Contact Longwood’s Financial Aid Office. The staff will help you understand your financial aid package, identify your cost gap, and discuss options for covering any gap. Additional funds may or may not be available, but they can check on that, as well as discuss various loan and payment plan options.
You may also contact the Financial Aid Office if you or your family has experienced a genuinely significant loss of income since filing your FAFSA financial aid form. In cases such as job loss, divorce, or a death in the family they can evaluate your situation and determine whether an adjustment to your aid would be warranted.
I hate the idea of having to borrow money for college. How confident can I be this is a good investment?
I wish nobody had to borrow money for their education – my family is still making monthly student loan payments. But the data are clear: if you need to borrow, and do so responsibly, the investment pays off. That’s especially true if you can mostly stick to federal loans, which come with low rates and strong consumer protections, like the federal income-based repayment program. And if you need to borrow a little more to get through in four years instead of longer, that’s almost always worthwhile.
You’re not alone. About two-thirds of Longwood students need some form of student loan, and of those who need to borrow, average debt at graduation is about $29,000. That’s roughly the national average for four-year colleges. But federal data show we’re actually well above the average for all Virginia colleges, and the national average for public four-year universities, when it comes to loan repayment rates. What that means is virtually all Longwood graduates – between 96 and 97 percent in recent years – are on strong enough footing after graduation to be repaying their loans. So they’re recouping that investment and more.
Is it worth it?
Yes, yes, yes. College unmistakably takes up a greater share of average family income than it used to. But despite what some people claim, the economic value has only expanded over time. We’ve all seen the studies about how a college degree on average raises lifetime incomes on average more than $1 million. College graduates have much lower unemployment rates -- even at the worst of the Great Recession, the unemployment rate for those with 4-year degrees never rose higher than 5 percent. They're much better able to adjust and flourish amidst economic disruption.
Obviously, experiences and opportunities vary widely across degree programs and industries. Nothing in life is guaranteed, or comes without individual effort. But Longwood graduates of every major are consistently in demand in the job market. Longwood gives you an entrée to a network of alumni and professional connections that help out not just at the launch but over the full course of a career.
Of course, a college education, particularly at a place like Longwood, is about much more than the economic payoff. A Longwood education prepares you to be a citizen-leader. There are benefits to a college degree in areas such as health, civic engagement and personal fulfillment. You become part of a meaningful, lifelong network of mentors and friends. It is expensive, and for families a real sacrifice. So we work every day to keep a lid on costs. But college can and does transform your life.
The Financial Aid Office is located in Brock Hall 107. You can call (434-395-2077) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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