Students throughout Virginia are tasked to borrow more than normal if they seek a college degree as both in-state tuition and mandatory fees for matriculation at state universities and community colleges have increased by an average of 5.1 percent or $612 this year. With the national student loan debt hovering around $1.5 trillion, lawmakers have been considering how to react to the next burgeoning debt bubble.

Nationwide, progressive-minded Democrats have proposed “free college,” with no real tangible plan of how to pay for it. While the argument is concreted in place in terms of supplying more funding to current student loan spending trend, in the Virginia state legislature, Republicans are working on a way to mitigate loan overspending for families and students while promoting accountability within colleges and providing for an educated and well-trained workforce in the Commonwealth.

Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) addressed a gathering of Virginia business leaders at the GO Virginia Foundation Board’s annual meeting recently, outlining this vision for higher education. Cox emphasized the need to create a “talent pipeline in Virginia, improve affordability through meaningful and tangible reforms, and promote accountability based on performance,” according to a press release.

Speaking to the crowd, Cox remarked, “there is another reason I am here – this is my passion. Being a teacher for at least three decades has led Cox to believe that “higher education in Virginia is at a pivotal moment.”

“We have never needed our higher ed system more than we do now…because it is the key to the talent pipeline, and the talent pipeline is the key to our future. But, at the same time, higher ed’s political position has never been shakier. At least in my recollection, the bond of trust between the people and our educational institutions—and the trust between our colleges and elected officials—has never been more at risk,” Cox said.

The Republican speaker then explained why he made higher education the core of his speech to GO Virginia. He said, “because the business community is an indispensable partner in addressing these related issues of talent, affordability, and performance-based accountability. And there’s no time to waste.”

Cox charged, “Instead of the ‘build it and they will come’ state, we need to be…the ‘build strong bridges from school to jobs’ state…the ‘prepare resilient graduates for lifelong success and service’ state…the ‘provide an affordable pathway for everyone in a growing economy’ state.”

“Or, to put it even more simply,” Cox explained, “Virginia needs to deliver an affordable education that leads to a good-paying job in a growing economy.”

The speaker said that Virginia must address helping and convincing talented citizens to stay in the Commonwealth to work for their degree or training certificate. This also mean reaching out to non-Virginians and getting more students to attend Virginia’s “top-ranked higher education system.”

“This will be a top priority of mine in the coming session,” Cox said.

The Colonial Heights delegate cited a study from the WalletHub financial website that ranked states based on student aid and work-study opportunities, with Virginia ranking an unimpressive 42nd out of 50.

“For a student, an internship provides work experience and a foot in the door toward a full-time job, plus it helps make college affordable,” Cox said. However, how would that work in a state with inefficient work-study opportunities.

Cox said that “matching, or aligning, talent to job opportunities,” is the key.

Some aspects are: “Getting businesses to work with high schools and colleges on curriculum alignment so that graduates emerge job-ready. Gearing our new workforce credentials initiative through the community college system so that it addresses the unmet employer demand in each region. Creating and marketing industry-specific pathways from school to the workplace, and providing easily accessible, user-friendly online information about internship and job availability across Virginia,” Cox explained.

To assist in forging a “stronger and more effective partnership” between the Virginia business community and the higher education community, Cox said the answer is “crafting institutional partnership agreements with each school on important initiatives related to talent, the economy, and student outcomes.”

“As I said last year to both the Council of Presidents and the Higher Education Summit, a core strength of our higher ed system is that individual institutions have grown up entrepreneurially, developed their own strengths, created their own niches in the marketplace, cultivated their own strategic partnerships with business, and so forth,” he added.

The legislator said that “every region is different, each of our higher ed institutions is different—and each has the ability to contribute something different to Virginia’s major talent and economic development initiatives.”

Cox reiterated that the agreements between businesses and institutions should not be “boil-the-ocean” sweeping agreements. The partnership should be “realistic” and “practical,” based on “big-ticket, high-impact items,” which are tied to the “talent pipeline” and to state and regional economic development.

Delving into another point for his plan in the General Assembly, Cox remarked, “We can have the best colleges in the nation and the greatest talent recruitment, retention, and training programs in the world, but it won’t matter if students and their families can’t afford to access them.”

The aforementioned debt bubble has led to costs of higher education increasing every year, causing the affordability problem. There is a number of causes for this. Cox said it’s a combination of “institutional operating models and spending practices, state budget reductions and unpredictability, federal subsidies, the student appetite for amenities, [and] market forces.”

“The answer plainly is not one-size-fits-all freezes, caps, or other unfunded mandates,” Cox stated. “Those are political slogans, not solutions,” he added.

These, “superficial and shortsighted approaches,” Cox explained, are some of the reasons why the higher education become less affordable every year.

“The truth—and we all know it,” Cox said, “is that there is no silver bullet or quick fix on college affordability.”

Speaker Cox said that Virginia must “move forward on a range of solutions: alternative pathways; transfer programs; online options; cost-saving innovations; more efficient collaboration among institutions; more help for students through financial aid, TAG grants, and work-study opportunities,” according to the press release.

To help students, legislation will also be drafted to direct each school to make a transparent, measurable commitment to affordable access for all Virginia undergraduate students. A college affordability and predictability plan would be the an “important part of…empowering students and families as consumers.”

Cox explained that Virginia should also begin tracking graduation rates and degree completion time, job success after graduation, among many others to tell students and families up front about not only the cost of an education or training program, but what the resulting debt level will be, and the return on investment that can be expected.

“If you don’t graduate, you get a lot of debt and no way to pay it back. If you get a degree that no one needs, you graduate into the proverbial parents’ basement and a big financial hole. But if what you get is an in-demand degree or credential that leads to a good job and strong lifetime earnings, then the investment can pay for itself many times over,” Cox said.

“That is the kind of information consumers need and many currently do not have,” he added.

Republican in the House of Delegates introduced a plan a few months ago to lower costs associated with Prepaid529 tuition savings plans. The proposed legislation will reduce the four-year, eight-semester, contract price by over $3,000, saving parents of college-bound students a lot of money.

Furthermore, with over one million Virginians carrying some type of college debt, legislation that creates a better atmosphere within institutions of higher education with transparency on affordability as well as partnering with the business sector will help ensure that families in the Commonwealth are able to send their children to college without assuming a crippling amount of debt.