Current Situation:
The data show that Virginia has above-average in-state tuition and below-average per-student tax appropriations. Tuition and fees at Virginia public research, four year, and two year institutions in 2017-2018 are among the highest in the US.

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How to make higher education more affordable for Virginia residents particularly lower income students while expanding educational opportunities and controlling costs?

OnAir Post: Virginia and College Affordability


After standoff, House and Senate to seal deal to stem college tuition costs
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters January 12, 2020
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Style Weekly)

For the last few days of the 2020 General Assembly session, college tuition freezes were a sticking point for House and Senate budget negotiators. Such a sticking point, in fact, that legislators extended their deadline for reaching a deal.

But a last-minute compromise appeared to offer the best of both worlds for legislators from both chambers. The Senate added roughly $60 million over the next two years for need-based financial aid at Virginia’s publicly funded colleges and universities. And the House added roughly $79.7 million for in-state tuition freezes, something its Higher Education Subcommittee — paraphrasing a quote from Winston Churchill — described as a “tremendous whack” at the problem of college affordability.

“Students and parents across the Commonwealth can breathe a sigh of relief now that the General Assembly has struck a deal that will freeze tuition for the second year in a row,” said Stacie Gordon, advocacy manager for Partners for College Affordability, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that pushes for more affordable college education around the country. “Virginia’s legislators have made it absolutely clear that holding down college costs for hard-working students and their families remains a top priority.”

Much of the debate boiled down to a fundamental disagreement over the merits of another tuition freeze. Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax — a 29-year-old dentist who estimates he still has around $560,000 in student debt — said the House was committed to a solution that would keep colleges more affordable for all Virginia students.

But in their subcommittee report, Senate legislators wrote that across-the-board tuition freezes would “simply perpetuate the past.” Financial aid, including tuition grants for students at private colleges, is a more effective way to leverage state funds for college affordability, they argued.

The House proposal will offer individual colleges optional funding in exchange for freezing tuition at 2020 levels, while the Senate will offer each school more money for need-based aid, regardless of tuition prices.

To at least one policy expert, though, both chambers are wrong. Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, has published several papers on federal higher education funding and the declining economic return of a college degree, relative to the cost of obtaining one. She said artificially capping the cost of college — whether through tuition freezes or greater financial aid — does nothing to address the underlying problem of rising prices.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” de Rugy added. “It doesn’t change all the bad incentives that already exist, most of them created by the government to get more and more students into the system.”

In Virginia, like the rest of the country, de Rugy said tuition increases can be tied to an overall imbalance between supply and demand. Thanks to a significant increase in federal financial aid, which started in the late 1970s, more students are attending college. (According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, there were a little fewer than 99,000 students enrolled at public four-year schools here in 1992, compared to 142,193 for the current academic year.)

At the same time, the overall number of higher education institutions has remained flat, and universities have an incentive to raise fees to collect more federal aid dollars.

As colleges accept more students, their spending also goes up — on faculty, housing, facilities and other amenities. That’s another reason for higher tuition, de Rugy said. And while costs have increased substantially, wages and job placement have stagnated in many fields, leading to a fundamental mismatch between the investment and payoff of higher education.

“Forty percent of the kids who got out of college, they’re not employed in the area where they got their diploma,” she continued. “We encourage them to go into the system, to accrue debt, to defer deployment, all for a degree they’re not going to use when they get out of school. And making it cheaper is not going to improve the system. It’s going to make it worse.”

That’s not true for all majors. STEM fields still enjoy high wage premiums, de Rugy pointed out in one research paper, as do many advanced degrees that can recoup the cost of additional student debt. And while the debate was ongoing, Samirah said many Virginians were relying on action from the state — regardless of whether it would change the underlying system.

“There’s a good benefit for everyday people at the end of the day,” he said. “Everyday students and everyday parents will benefit from us negotiating on this.

But de Rugy also pointed out that colleges and universities would likely pass in-state tuition freezes onto out-of-state students. She believes a true disruption in tuition costs is mostly likely to come from competing education models, including online coding bootcamps — which are plagued by their own problems with high prices and low placement rates — or increased attendance in community colleges and vocational schools.

A 2014 report by the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission found that Virginia’s public universities were among the most expensive in the nation. The commission attributed tuition increases to a number of factors, including cuts in state funding and increased spending on non-academic services, especially athletics and real estate and construction. The report estimated 56 percent of the increase in per-student cost between 2002 and 2012 has been for athletics, student housing, dining and security.

In December, Gov. Ralph Northam unveiled his “G3” proposal, with would offer free community college tuition for low- and middle-income students in certain technical and STEM fields. The General Assembly didn’t fully match the entire $145 million he requested for the program, but did allocate $69 million over the next two years.

Free College With Grants for Basic Needs
Madeline St. AmourJanuary 6, 2020

Advocates for increasing college attainment and equity say that free college programs need to cover more than just the cost of tuition.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has a proposal that would do just that, although some are criticizing the proposal’s eligibility restrictions.

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The Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back, or G3 program, was included in Democratic governor Ralph Northam’s $138 billion biennial budget proposal. The $145 million program would make community college tuition-free for low- and middle-income students, as well as provide grants for other costs like transportation and food.

On Thursday, September 19, 2019 Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust announced the formation of a new policy council to identify solutions to problems of affordability and workforce readiness in Virginia higher education. The council’s membership includes CEOs from various industries, senior executives in finance, technology and energy sectors, nonprofit executives representing small businesses, bankers and other public interests, former college presidents, trustees, senior administrators, and current college students.

“This council brings together the best thinkers and leaders from across the Commonwealth to address one of the most persistent domestic policy issues facing Virginia and the nation,” said Partners president Dr. James Toscano. “Partners is proud to host this important conversation with our all-star council members, and we look forward to learning their unique perspectives and ideas on building a better future for students, families and the public.”

General Assembly

State Senate

Senate Education and Health Committee

A Republican senator wants students to approve tuition increases before governing boards do

Mechelle Hankerson, Virginia Mercury, December 24, 2019

Stuart wants to make other cost increases at public colleges more understandable. He filed separate legislation that requires university governing boards  to provide written notice of why they want to increase a president’s compensation and where the funding for the raise would come from. The boards must allow public comment on the change and the increase has to be voted on in an open meeting.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s database of state employee salaries, seven of the 10 highest paid state employees were university presidents this past year:

  • Michael Rao at VCU made $1 million
  • University of Virginia President James Ryan made $962,875
  • J.H. Binford Peay at Virginia Military Institute made $837,267
  • Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands made $775,000
  • Paul Trible at Christopher Newport made $771,287
  • Angel Cabrera, who left his position as president of George Mason this summer, made $763,226
  • John Broderick at Old Dominion made $638,217

Those amounts include housing, cell phone allowances, transportation, bonuses and other items that made up the presidents’ total compensation.


House of Delegates

House Education Committee

Virginia21 2019 General Assembly Candidate Survey

Higher Education Attainment – Please share your platform on higher education funding and college affordability. Do you support increasing state financing of student aid in the biennial budget? Do you support increasing the amount awarded to students enrolled in private colleges and universities through the Tuition Assistance Grant? How can Virginia ensure equity in access and attainment for all students, particularly those from underserved groups?

Wendy Gooditis – VA House District 10 (D)

I support funding for our public colleges and universities, as I understand that education is a critical area of investment for our economic future. I also support Tuition Assistance Grants for students attending institutions that demonstrate financial responsibility and provide quality education. I believe financial aid assistance, especially at our public colleges and universities, should be increased to provide greater access to underserved communities.

Student Debt – Student loan debt has surpassed auto loans and credit cards to become the second highest form of consumer debt. The average Virginia college graduate now owes over $30,000 in student debt. How should Virginia address the mounting burden of student debt and its economic impact? Do you support strengthening oversight of student loan servicers?

Federal Funding Options

Source: Vox

Democrats’ ongoing argument about free college, explained

By Matthew Yglesias
Vox – June 24, 2019

It’s a debate that cleaves two philosophically distinct approaches to politics: one a mentality of hoarding scarce resources for the most efficient uses, and the other a broad, aspirational vision of public luxury in which there’s little need to quibble about exactly who gets what.

Yet the federal government is a secondary actor in higher education. State governments allowed higher education cost structures to rise even while pulling back on funding, pushing more costs onto students. It’s ultimately state governments that will need to decide whether they’re willing to spend more on higher education, cut costs, or both. The candidates arguing about this are running for president, not governor, and when you look under the hoods of their plans, there may be less to the contrast than the broad philosophical discussion would suggest.

Senator Warner

Senator Mark Warner
“Warner remains committed to ensuring that every Virginian has access to the quality education and training needed to succeed in our global economy without the burden of crippling student debt. Having paid for his own undergraduate education with student loans, Senator Warner knows first-hand the financial challenges facing those who seek higher education. Senator Warner will continue to fight for commonsense solutions to make college more affordable and to help those who are already struggling with student debt. Senator Warner believes that if left unaddressed, student debt will be the next financial crisis facing our country. Senator Warner also knows that college isn’t the only path to success. He believes that we must increase our focus on industry certifications and lifelong learning and retraining in order to create more opportunities for good paying jobs for Virginians.”

Sen. Mark Warner meets with Mason students to talk about college affordability

By John Hollis
September 13, 2019

His father paid for his first semester of college, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said Friday, but that after that, he was on his own and took out student loans to pay for his education.

Speaking in The Hub Ballroom to an estimated 200 Mason students, faculty and staff, the two-term Virginia Democrat and former Virginia governor said he wants to ensure college remains affordable for all students. Warner highlighted legislation and other measures he supports that could ease the financial pinch many college students face nationwide amidst soaring tuition costs that can result in crippling student debt.

“We have to figure out how we can slow the growing costs of college education,” Warner said. “We’re not going to be able to stop it, but we can slow it and provide a series of other options.”

That likely came as welcome news to Mason President Anne Holton, whose introduction of Warner noted that more than a third of Mason students are first-generation college students, and almost a third of them are Pell Grant-eligible. Yet Mason boasts among the lowest student default rates in the state and virtually no disparity in graduation rates among both Pell Grant recipients and nonrecipients.

“That doesn’t mean, Sen. Warner, that we don’t have an affordability issue,” said Holton, a longtime friend of Warner, along with her husband, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “We absolutely do because of the students we’re serving and the high quality of work we’re doing with them.”

Virginia’s senior senator noted that student debt is a detriment to the national economy because it often hinders young people from taking entrepreneurial risks, buying homes or even getting married.

“It’s a crushing burden,” Warner said.

Warner cited legislation currently under consideration that would lower student debt by refinancing loans “to a manageable level.” He also cited proposed “know before you go” legislation that would provide better financial guidance to prospective college students in the hopes of creating better informed consumers. He said he also supports increased Pell Grant funding and a more simplified financial aid system.

That’s just what Sarah Kurian had hoped to hear. The junior global affairs major from Reston, Virginia, said that she came to hear Sen. Warner because higher education affordability especially resonates with college students.

“It’s really an important issue for us,” she said. “So it was really nice to hear a politician talking about it.”

Not everybody went away completely satisfied, however. Sophomore government and international politics major Will McLauchlin asked Warner if he’d support legislation that would mandate free college for students and cancellation of all student debt, but didn’t get the answer for which he hoped.

Warner said it wouldn’t be responsible to leave his children a country that couldn’t afford to pay its bills.

“I don’t think there’s anything progressive about promising you free stuff if we can’t pay for it,” Warner said.

(*This was filmed by GMUTV- George Mason University Television. Virginia onAir does not own the rights to this video.*)

The Empowering Students through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act will take the important step of tackling student loan debt on the front end by increasing financial literacy among prospective borrowers and empowering them to make better-informed decisions about their higher education financing. Current law only requires that institutions provide one-time entrance and exit counseling to student loan borrowers receiving federal student aid, excluding Parent PLUS loans and consolidation loans. This bill will promote financial literacy by requiring that federal student loan borrowers – both students and parents – receive annual counseling that reflects their individual borrowing situation; increasing awareness of accumulating financial obligations by requiring borrowers to consent each year before receiving federal student loans; requiring annual counseling for Pell Grant recipients; and directing the U.S. Secretary of Education to maintain and distribute an online counseling tool that institutions can use to provide the counseling required by the bill.

The Empowering Students through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act is being cosponsored by Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), by Tim Kaine (D-VA), Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Tim Scott (R-SC). This legislation has the support of the National Education Association, Bipartisan Policy Center, UNCF, TICAS, Chiefs for Change, and American Student Assistance.  For more information on Senator Warner’s government website, go here.

Senator Kaine

Senator Tim Kaine
“Kaine believes that we must improve access to quality education if we want to prepare students and workers for success in the modern economy. He supports smart investments in education — from pre-kindergarten to college and workforce training — and has learned through years of experience in Virginia that no one path is right for everyone. Drawing from his years working in his dad’s ironworking shop and his experience teaching in Honduras, a key focus of Tim’s work in public service has been strengthening career and technical education (CTE) programs that teach students skills to succeed in high-demand, good-paying jobs.”

The Innovation Zone Act, would rename experimental sites as “innovation zones” to better reflect the mission of the initiative. The bill would also require the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education to establish a methodology for capturing data before an experiment begins, so colleges have clear direction in reporting data. It would also allow colleges the opportunity to submit suggestions for future experiments.

The legislation will improve and reform the experimental sites initiative by:

  • Expressly stating that experiments must increase student success.
  • Providing an opportunity for the public, institutions of higher education and other stakeholders to submit suggestions for experiments, and the Secretary must base selection on sufficient interest.
  • Specifying the length of a given experiment before it begins.
  • Requiring the data collection methodology, rigorous evaluation methods, estimated cost, and answerable questions to be established before launching an experiment.
  • Requiring the Secretary to report on the status of experiments every two years that will be published on the Department’s website.
  • Requiring a review of existing experiments.
  • Renaming experimental site as an innovation zones to better reflect the purpose of the title.

For more information on Tim Kaine’s government website, go here.

Virginia Funding Options

The Virginia Plan for Higher Education

Source: SCHEV website

Overview: The Virginia Plan for Higher Education

Virginia faces a future in which higher education will play an increasingly important role. Virginians will need deeper and broader knowledge and skills to be engaged, productive participants in our evolving Commonwealth and its economy. At the same time, the demographics of the emerging generation are changing: An increasing share of our youth will come from populations which historically have been underrepresented in both higher education and the highly educated sectors of our workforce. These changes transpire at a time when the price of attending Virginia colleges and universities has increased at unsustainable rates.

The Code of Virginia vests the State Council of Higher Education (the Council) with responsibility to develop a statewide strategic plan that reflects statutory goals for higher education in the Commonwealth, identifies a coordinated approach to such state and regional goals, and emphasizes the future needs for higher education in Virginia. Approved in October 2014, The Virginia Plan for Higher Education is designed to identify trends that the Commonwealth must address if it is to continue to prosper and succeed. Through input from higher-education partners, The Virginia Plan is intended to help guide a vision for Virginia’s future through a common framework. This framework is built on the premise that all partners in higher education must work together to help Virginia, its citizens and its regions.