How Does UVa In-State Tuition Compare to Other Top 50 Universities?

UVa is the bold orange line at the far right. To view a more legible image of this graph, click here and scroll to page 31 of the pdf.

by James A. Bacon

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors sets tuition & fees every other year. This is one of those years. In December the Board is scheduled to announce tuition and fees for the following two academic years. The decision-making process is sure to be controversial, as a number of Youngkin appointees on the board are fiscal hawks who hope to keep costs down and tuition hikes low.

The Ryan administration fired an opening salvo by distributing the graph above, which shows UVa in a highly flattering light. If you are a Virginia resident and wish to attend one of the Top 50 universities in the country (as rated by USNWR, or U.S. News & World Report), UVa charges the lowest tuition and fees. The graph is hard to read, but UVa is represented by the bold orange line at the far right, so you can see that it is the lowest by a wide margin.

Presentation of the graph prompted the most animated discussion by Board members so far in the September meeting.

Thomas A. DePasquale, a Northam administration holdover, said the graph showed what an extraordinary bargain UVa is. Indeed, he argued, the graph understated the value because it doesn’t take into account the significant amount of financial aid the university provides. The net cost, after financial aid, is even lower!

Not everyone bought his logic.

First of all, the picture looks quite different for out-of-state students attending UVa, who pay tuitions in line with what Ivy League institutions charge. A third of UVa undergraduates are out of state.

Second, the net cost of tuition is lower for all Top 50 universities. All institutions supply financial aid, and private schools discount tuition heavily. Indeed, a criticism by left-of-center analysts is that, though UVa promises to make attendance affordable for all, it provides financial aid to a smaller percentage of students than peer institutions do. If DePasquale wants to tout UVa’s net tuition, he needs to compare it to the net tuition of peer institutions.

Third, due to scholarships and discounting based on household income, the net tuition varies widely from family to family. In the Jefferson Council’s analysis, UVa takes good care of lower-income students but its tuition/aid structure is hard on middle-class families. In other words, whether UVa is a bargain depends on the student in question.

Fourth, even if it can be demonstrated that UVa is a better value than peer institutions — and some rankings suggest that it is — that doesn’t mean its tuition structure is justified. UVa may be the best of a bad bunch. As the Jefferson Council has documented in multiple articles over the past two months, the growth in administrative overhead has significantly outstripped enrollment growth over the past decade. The fact that spending is even more out of control at peer institutions is no justification for runaway costs at UVa.

Perhaps our analysis is flawed. Perhaps UVa can make a case that it truly does offer one of the best educational values in the country. Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis promised the Board a highly transparent budgeting process this fall. Hopefully, the discussion will surface enough financial data for the Board to make a well-founded assessment.

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