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On Wednesday, Virginia college students had the opportunity to question Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates on issues important to them: tuition increases, student debt and job creation.

Virginia21, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group representing more than 65,000 young voters, hosted a “Hangout for Higher Ed” web-forum that connected students, candidates and viewers through a live podcast.

“This event is important to me because I’m going to graduate in two years and I’m going to face a tough job market,” said James Madison University student Karen Tirelis, one of six students from universities across Virginia to question the candidates.

Most of the students’ questions focused on rising tuition rates within the state.

“As a parent, my oldest is in college and I’ve been through the sticker shock and it is shocking,” said Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli. “We’re pricing middle-class families out of the ability to fund higher education…If you look back over five, ten, 20 years, I think what you will find is that … there’s been an increase in the non-teaching [staff] side of school budgets. And that’s been a lot faster. I see schools try to economize by using [teacher assistants and graduate assistants] and I really think the first goal of our universities is teaching. And so where I want to see our professors is in classes with students.”

Cuccinelli said universities need to push for efficiency to keep tuition increases at bay, but that quality of education was also a concern.

“When it comes to higher education, I think it is important for us to focus on particularly gaining efficiency outside of the teaching ranks, outside of the teaching costs,” he said. “But I also think it is important as a governor, which is what we’re talking about, that we not invade too directly the nitty-gritty of every university’s budget.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe said he shares students’ concerns about loan debt.

“We have to make sure our students are getting that education, but [that] they’re not getting out of college with a lot of debt and no job,” said McAuliffe. “[A]s governor I want to make sure you have a job when you get out. I can assure you that as governor, I promise you, that we’re going to have the necessary funds that we need so that everyone can afford to go to college and [that] it’s not such an exorbitant cost.”

He said he was concerned debt was forcing graduates into unwanted career fields.

“[T]heir debt is so high that when they get out of college, they don’t pursue their dreams, they don’t go into the field that they really want to go into,” McAuliffe said. “They have to immediately take a job in a different sector so that they can immediately start paying down their loans.”

College of William & Mary student Meg Schwenzfeier asked McAuliffe, “Politicians on either side of the aisle often argue that institutions of higher ed need to be more efficient with their money and keep tuition increases to a minimum. But this has led to increases in class sizes, frozen professors’ salaries and increased reliance on part-time faculty… As governor how would you pursue efficiency while making quality your top priority?”

McAuliffe responded: “We’ve got to keep tuition low. We need to make sure that we’re having efficiencies… [we need] to give some more autonomy at the local level so that those institutions can make decisions that will save taxpayer money, and do what we need to do to keep tuitions low.”

Virginia21 event organizers said the “Hangout for Higher Ed” web forum attracted about 400 to 500 viewers.

“We are going to do this again,” Virginia21 Executive Director Tom Kramer said. “[The forum] is a great way to make sure young people are engaged in the debate about higher education and the economy. It’s a great way to ensure that more technology is used in Virginia elections.”

To view the compete “Hangout for Higher Ed” candidate forum, visit www.Virginia21.org.



hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com