Marc Fisher of The Washington Post examined Bob McDonnell’s gubernatorial bid in yesterday’s column.

Fisher mentions that the McDonnell campaign is poised to enter the debate about whether Virginia colleges and universities should restrict the number of out-of-state undergraduate students in a big way.

Here is the key quote.

The solutions that he talks about don’t involve tax increases. Instead he wants to boost access to Virginia’s colleges by putting strict limits on the number of out-of-state students admitted.

Fisher does not go much further in discussing the politics of the issue other than to comment that McDonnell’s position “would only exacerbate the schools’ financial woes since out-of-state students pay vastly higher tuition.”

But if McDonnell is preparing to take on the colleges and the universities (and some of their affiliated supporters) on out-of-state admissions, this is a BIG DEAL that tells us plenty about the emerging strategy of his campaign.

For years, the colleges and university officials have successfully deflected legislative initiatives to restrict out-of-state undergraduate admissions .

They have argued that the selectivity of Virginia universities has been crucial to our high national rankings. They maintain that the national and international diversity fostered by these admission policies benefits not only the university, but the entire Commonwealth, bringing to Virginia very smart young men and women who often remain in the state and make substantial economic contributions.

And they have stated, as Fisher points out,  that reducing out-of-state numbers will require a greater financial investment in colleges and universities than political leaders have typically been willing to make.

If  the substantive arguments are not sufficiently persuasive, universities say that it is inappropriate for the legislature to meddle in admission policies because in Virginia’s decentralized system of higher education, these are the purview of the Board of Vistors at individual institutions.

So why would McDonnell or any other statewide candidate for that matter enter this fray?

Think of four letters.

N-O-V-A.

Dave Albo, Clay Athey and Tim Hugo,  legislators who introduced bills this year attempting to make more slots available for Virginia students in our most selective universities, remarked that their constituents are constantly asking to them about why their sons and daughters cannot get into our best institutions, even if they have stellar academic records. 

So if the GOP is thinking of ways to focus on issues that are meaningful in NOVA, here’s one where passions run high. And where the standard arguments of college leaders may not be very convincing.

 I doubt that parents in NOVA care very much about whether the University of Virginia or William and Mary is ranked two, three or eight.

The argument for increasing diversity is unlikely to carry much weight in a region that is already a global, multicultural capital.

And if the state has to put some extra dollars in the hopper to accomplish this, my guess is that many northern Virginians will say okay.  Isn’t the state already taking NOVA money and distributing it to everyone else to pay for their needs?

In addition, creating additional slots for admission to our most selective universities may be one of the few issues where the interests of rural Virginians are completely aligned with the beliefs prevalent in NOVA. 

Colleges and universities have usually treated legislative initiatives to control their admission practices as perennial annoyances to which they had to respond, but ones that they would ultimately be able to swat away.

A statewide campaign on the issue is an entirely different matter.

Bob McDonnell knows that he has to find ways of putting the Democrats off-balance and on the defensive in NOVA.

What will Creigh Deeds, Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran do when McDonnell asks them whether they are willing to put Virginians first?

Placing college admissions center stage is a risk for McDonnell, especially at a time when Democrats invariably claim that Republicans are opposed to educational progress.

But the upside is that McDonnell just could alter the political dynamic in a region where the Republicans must run better if they’re to retake the Governorship in November.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for taking up this point, Bob.
    Here’s some additional detail from my interview with McDonnell. He said he wants UVa and other state schools to “put a premium on kids from Virginia. These are state schools and we need to change the rules to reflect that.” Earlier in the interview, McDonnell talked about how “I really like fixing problems,” and he spelled out a bunch of topics he’d like to address, including traffic, the state funding formula for K-12 education, and “the state universities’ admissions for gifted students”–all of which very much fit into your theory that this agenda is driven by the candidate’s need and desire to tap into the frustrations of NoVa voters.

  2. [...] mentioned yesterday that Bob McDonnell’s comments in a Marc Fisher piece in the Post indicated to me that he was [...]

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