- The Washington Times - Friday, November 1, 2002

State governments are all-too-eager to conjure up wayward projects to be financed through bond offerings. Of all the possible reasons for states to go into hock, one endeavor remains distinctly legitimate: the financing of higher-education institutions, especially when the case for such funding clearly has been made. For this reason, we strongly endorse a $900-million bond offering to finance capital projects at state colleges, universities and museums. We do not, however, endorse the other bond-financed projects being submitted to the voters on Tuesday.

Last year, 320,000 students were enrolled in Virginia's public colleges and universities. By conservative estimates, this number will grow to at least 360,000 students by 2010. This boom will be strongly felt in Northern Virginia, where 300,000 people are expected to move in the next decade. An injection of funds for these institutions will therefore be sorely needed.

George Mason University would receive $80 million that would go toward building two classroom buildings, a research building and four renovation projects. Northern Virginia Community College would get $35 million for a new classroom building and renovation projects. The enlargements and renovations would open space for the 32,000 additional new students expected in Northern Virginia institutions by 2008 and allow for smaller classes. Virginia says the bond offering won't result in a tax increase or undermine the state's AAA bond rating.

George Mason currently has 27,000 students, up from 25,000 in 2001 and 23,500 in 2000. As enrollment has increased, financing has decreased. Last year, Virginia gave the university $115 million, while this year the budget was cut to $90 million. The university has raised an additional $15 million through tuition increases, and is cutting $10 million in costs.

Student demand for a George Mason education has grown feverishly. The university currently receives about 10,000 applications for the 2,500 spaces for freshman. Until recently, that number of applications was below 6,000. Many of the students who are turned away from George Mason enroll at NVCC. But schools like George Mason would be hard-pressed to accommodate qualified transfer students from community colleges without the bond offering.

This would be unfortunate, since many students use community colleges to become college-ready, and as an avenue to a four-year institution. At NVCC, 20 percent to 25 percent take remedial classes. At many other community colleges, that number is far higher. George Mason currently has an arrangement with NVCC to fast-track acceptance of all qualified graduates. But the future of that arrangement hinges on increased funding. Without it, "you have a bait and switch situation," said NVCC President Robert Templin. NVCC, meanwhile, is also coping with budget restraints by paying for one out of four students with tuition money, increasing class size, offering classes six days a week and hiring an enormous amount of part-time faculty, said Mr. Templin.

Virginians should vote no on a profligate proposal to raise $119 million through bonds for parks and other recreational facilities. Given bureaucrats' singular flair for spending borrowed cash, bond offerings should be carefully scrutinized. Of the latest batch, Virginia's higher-education proposal is uniquely sound. Vote yes for higher-education bonds, and vote no for bonds for parks and recreation.

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