Economic Burden Shifted to Mason Students, Parents

George Mason University (GMU) and higher learning institutions around the country have responded to the double-headed monster of state budget cuts and an ailing economy by forcing students and parents to shoulder an increasing share of the economic burden, according to GMU officials and knowledgeable observers.

(Photo by Creative Commons contributor Images_of_Money).

GMU Provost Dr. Peter Stearns told Connect2Mason that the Virginia state budget “has been cut by about $45 million over the past three years. We have compensated, for example, by increasing class size a bit and raising tuition more rapidly than we would have liked.”

In fact, “the total price for an in-state undergraduate student including tuition, fees, room and board will be $16,624, an increase of 6.1 percent,” according to the Office of Budget and Planning’s 2010-2011 Executive Summary.

Kristen Amundson of the Educator Sector, a nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington, DC-based education think tank, says that “states over the last five years have faced $500 billion budget shortfalls,” so the need to find savings is real.

“One of the very first places cuts were made was in the area of higher education, because the belief was that students and parents can pick up the bill,” said Amundson.

For the Mason community, the possibility of a double-dip recession and even more state-level budget cuts threatens to measurably alter the educational experience. Provost Stearns says that the combination of cost cutting already in place would have to be revisited if the economy doesn’t turn around in the next two or three years. He sees uncertainty at the federal level as the biggest threat to Mason’s budget.

As tuition rates increase nationwide and more students rely on financial aid, cuts to programs such as Pell Grants could be devastating. But there are less obvious ways that budget cuts could impact the Mason community.

Congress established a joint committee charged with saving $1.5 trillion over the next ten years as part of the July compromise ending the debt ceiling debate. Should the committee fail to reach an agreement on at least $1.2 trillion in savings, mandatory cuts applying to spending between 2013 and 2021 would take effect, cutting as much as $600 billion from defense over the next ten years.

Director of the Center for Regional Analysis Dr. Stephen Fuller in an email message said “that there are 31 military installations [in Virginia] and on a per capita basis Virginia receives more money from the Department of Defense than any other state,” adding that defense cuts would be a “big threat.” Because so many jobs in Virginia are in defense and intelligence, significant defense cuts could hurt the local economy—auguring even more budget slashing at the state level.

Part of the strategic effort to mitigate budget cutting has involved tweaking how Mason participates in research and development, according to Provost Sterns.

Dr. Fuller says these measures will help insulate the university if the Defense Department decides to cut research and development funding. “Defense Department contracts at GMU are not a significant part of the research and development funds coming into the university,” and “more importantly, GMU is not dependent on Defense Department monies as it has a diversified research portfolio.”

According to data from, the amount of Defense Department contracts awarded to Mason have gone up from $6.3 million in 2000 to a peak of $14.7 million in 2009. By way of comparison, the fiscal year 2011 budget is estimated to be almost $890 million, according to the GMU Office of Budget and Planning.

Admundson says that students ought to be mindful of their part in ensuring their future financial stability by choosing majors more wisely. A number of studies reveal the benefits of a college education, but it’s “not necessarily a good investment to accumulate $150,000 worth of debt to go into a career where you’re making $30,000.”

As states and universities continue to shift the financial burden of college onto students and parents, decisions about academic majors could have even more lifelong financial repercussions than they already do.

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