Checking up on Gov. Bob McDonnell’s claims on higher education

Gov. Bob McDonnell has proposed a record $2.2 billion employer contribution to the state pension over the next two budget years.
Gov. Bob McDonnell has proposed a record $2.2 billion employer contribution to the state pension over the next two budget years.

Last week, Gov. McDonnell wrongly said there is room in state colleges and universities for only 38 percent of Virginians seeking higher education.

McDonnell made the claim at a Capitol news conference at which he laid out a plan for state colleges to issue an additional 100,000 degrees over the next 15 years.

A newspaper reader, skeptical of the governor’s claim, asked us to check it out.

Our first call went to Taylor Thornley, deputy director of communications for the governor. She sent us news release about the legislation, but there was no mention about a capacity at state colleges for only 38 percent of Virginia’s students.

We followed up, and she told us the governor erred in his remarks. He had meant to say only 35 percent of university-age Virginians currently enroll in college. He wasn’t trying to address the number of spots available for in-state students, Thornley said.

Thornley said the governor thinks the state should do a better job getting more people to go to college and needs to change a system where barely one-third of young people move on past high school. Hence the plan to help schools attract more students and add more degrees over the next 15 years.

It appears the governor, as all of us do from time to time, had made an simple mistake.

Given the correction provided by the governor’s office, we didn’t think a Truth-o-Meter item was warranted.

But neither did we want to leave this item unaddressed, especially after a reader’s request that we investigate.

We were also curious to see how accurate the governor’s original claim -- about room at state colleges for only 38 percent of Virginia’s aspiring students -- might have been.

According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, 61,113 new freshmen entered Virginia public colleges in the fall of 2010. Of them, 85.3 percent, or 52,129, were in-state students.

The Virginia Department of Education reported that there were 97,979 students in the group of high school students scheduled to graduate from the state’s public schools in 2009. As of the summer of 2010, 84.8 percent of them had graduated and another 4 percent had earned a General Education Diploma, or GED. That would seem to make 86,976 public high school students eligible to attend Virginia two- and four-year colleges, along with graduates from Virginia’s private schools.

So if every one of those 86,976 students with a diploma or GED tried to use one of the 52,129 spots currently filled by in-state freshmen, 60 percent would receive a spot. Of course that does not count the private school students, but there would need to be about 50,525 private school students all seeking a spot at a Virginia college to fall to the 38 percent level mistakenly mentioned by McDonnell.

And this also assumes that the state colleges would make no effort to take more in-state students and fewer out-of-state students if faced with such high demand from Virginia residents. That seems highly unlikely.