Higher education will take center stage at the 2017 Virginia General Assembly session, with college affordability and access being key issues – Affordable College Tuition
Higher education will take center stage at the 2017 Virginia General Assembly session, with college affordability and access being key issues

Higher education will feature prominently in the 2017 Virginia General Assembly session, thanks in part to the “unaffordability” of an education at the commonwealth’s 15 public, four-year universities and colleges.

Several factors point toward higher ed becoming a key issue of the 2017 Virginia GA session. These factors include:

  • The July 2016 disclosure of a $2.2 billion “strategic initiative fund” at the University of Virginia that was quietly stockpiled by administrators over the past decade at a time of soaring tuition for students;
  • Criticism over the spending practices of Virginia’s 15 public, four-year colleges and universities that have resulted in tuition rates that have far exceeded the rates of inflation and income growth;
  • The high number of out-of-state students given enrollment preference over Virginia students at some of the commonwealth’s signature institutions;
  • The record levels of debt that Virginia students are graduating with after attaining their college and university diplomas.

Already, lawmakers are preparing bills that will make higher education center stage at the 2017 GA session that begins in January.

A bill proposed by Del. David Albo, R-Springfield, would require state universities to enroll more in-state students. HB 1410 would require 75 percent of the state universities’ undergraduate students be comprised of Virginia residents. The state’s two historically black colleges, Norfolk State University and Virginia State University, would be exempted along with Virginia Military Institute.

All but three of the state’s institutions meet the 75 percent threshold. The three that don’t include:

  • James Madison University, with 72 percent of students from in-state;
  • UVA, with 66 percent of students from in-state;
  • William and Mary, with 62 percent of students from in-state.

Other pieces of legislation that have been introduced ahead of the 2017 GA session include:

—HB 400, which was continued from the 2016 session and would establish the Virginia Student Loan Refinancing Authority for Virginia students who incurred higher education debt to refinance all or part of those student loans. A companion piece of legislation is Senate Bill 52.

—HB 401 was continued from the 2016 session and would bar anyone from acting as a student loan servicer without first obtaining a license from the State Corporation Commission. The measure would also establish an Office of the Student Loan Ombudsman within the SCC’s Bureau of Financial Institutions to assist Virginia students who borrow money for higher education in the Commonwealth.

—HB 1401 would prohibit institutions of higher education from abridging the freedom of any individual, including enrolled students, faculty and other employees and invited guests, from speaking on campus, except as otherwise permitted by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
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In addition, a recent House Appropriations Committee staff report sounded a call for more transparency in how tuition dollars are spent at Virginia’s 15 public, four-year colleges and universities.

In the November House Appropriations Committee report, lawmakers learned recently that for every $1 universities have lost in state reductions over the past two decades, tuition was increased by $2, according to a recent article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch titled, “On rising college costs in Virginia, House budget committee is told the state is not to blame.”

The report found that General Fund appropriations per student decreased by $1,634 in constant dollars from 1996 to 2015, while in-state undergraduate tuition rose by $3,186. Anthony A. “Tony” Maggio, a legislative fiscal analyst for the committee, said it would be “interesting for parents to at least understand how much of their bill is being used to pay for something other than the education of their child,” according to the Times-Dispatch article.

Maggio’s recommendations to lawmakers is that they examine the costs to students to establish a baseline for each of the 15 institutions, then require the schools to justify tuition hikes.

Spending on support, staffing, athletics

While the Virginia Joint Legislative and Audit Review Committee (JLARC) has pinpointed questionable spending practices at Virginia’s 15 higher ed institutions, the reports have been met with inaction.

In one inquiry, JLARC found that most of the 15 higher ed institutions spend less on support costs and staffing than comparable schools nationwide, but several spend substantially more. The three schools with high support costs and staffing expenses — they spend more than 75 percent of comparable institutions — include the University of Virginia, Virginia Military Institute and the College of William and Mary, according to JLARC.

To see a copy of the 2014 JLARC report, click here.

Another November 2014 JLARC report that addressed the cost of public higher education in Virginia tackled cost efficiency at the 15 institutions. The interest was spurred by recent substantial increases in tuition and fees over recent years and the high debt load of Virginia students.

To see a copy of the report, titled “Addressing the Cost of Public Higher Education in Virginia,” click here.

The JLARC report was at the behest of the General Assembly following responses of members of Board of Visitors at state institutions, who said they had limited ability to influence certain decisions — particularly when it comes to efficiency or non-academic spending. Almost one-third of the board members also didn’t have a basic understanding of higher education operations or public finance.

The JLARC report zeroed in on spending on non-academic functions, primarily intercollegiate athletics. The non-academic functions, including services and amenities constructed in response to enrollment growth and to attract students, are funded through mandatory student fees that have ballooned, representing one-third of total tuition and fees. For example, students fund 69 percent of the athletic program expenditures at the 15 institutions.

A former Board of Visitors member for one of the 15 public institutions noted, “Do we really need the intercollegiate athletic programs as they exist? Are all of the gyms and fitness centers that have been built necessary? It is time to provide an education at affordable costs, which might mean returning to focusing on the costs of education and reducing non-essential services.”

Mandatory fees more than doubled at six of the institutions over a decade, topped by a whopping 215 percent hike at Christopher Newport University. Following CNU were the University of Mary Washington at a 148 percent hike and Virginia Military Institute at a 132 percent increase. Other schools included UVA at a 66 percent increase, James Madison University at a 59 percent increase, Virginia Tech University at a 113 percent hike and the College of William & Mary at a 101 percent hike.

High-income students get aid

In addition, the report found that state-designated funds to help students afford college based on their need are being awarded to high-income students. Three institutions — Christopher Newport University, VMI and William & Mary — awarded 15 percent or more to high-income students.

Among the recommendations contained in the JLARC report is to restrict state student aid funds to low- and middle-income students.

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