With the coronavirus pandemic now clouding Virginia’s once rosy financial outlook, and Gov. Ralph Northam’s call for a special session of the General Assembly to deal with the unanticipated fallout, the just-passed $142 billion state budget will have to be reconfigured. Non-essential spending passed less than two weeks ago will have to be curtailed in light of the new reality that state revenues will likely plummet and expenses rise before this unprecedented health crisis is over.
The budget includes almost $80 million for tuition relief over the next two years at the commonwealth’s colleges and universities. Like last year’s $57.5 million tuition freeze (which was the first time tuition didn’t go up in nearly two decades), the money is only supposed to go to those institutions of higher learning that agree not to raise their tuition and fees for the 2020-21 academic year.
Another year’s reprieve from ever-rising tuition is welcome news to many students and their parents, particularly as shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic have already started to derail the economy. But tuition and fees at Virginia state schools have risen a staggering 80 percent over the past decade, and would still be going up were it not for this $80 million infusion.
Included in the budget deal is a belated requirement that each institution “spend time reviewing the underlying costs on campuses, how tuition is charged by family income level, and the models it uses to make funding decisions,” according to James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust. But the fact that taxpayers don’t already know exactly how their tax dollars are being spent due to an unacceptable lack of transparency by the governing boards of these institutions is disturbing, to say the least.
Even Gov. Northam’s $145 million G3 proposal to provide low- and middle-income students with “free” community college, which was scaled back by the legislature to $69 million over the next two years, didn’t address the real issue of unsustainable tuition hikes. Although state support dropped from 67 percent of the cost of an in-state college education in 2004 to 45 percent during the 2018–19 academic year, that still doesn’t account for the fact that Virginian’s public universities are among the most expensive in the nation.
“The $145 million budget initiative represents just a fraction of the billions in total state spending on higher education that favors a few resource-rich universities — with no affordability or employment outcomes required,” Toscano pointed out.
Just so. For example, the fiscal 2021 allocations include $3.7 million for the University of Virginia, which has 16,777 undergraduates and as of last year, a $9.6 billion endowment. But there’s only $5.9 million extra in the budget for the entire Virginia Community College System, which last year educated the full-time equivalent of over 98,000 students.
From a public policy perspective, it doesn’t make sense to continue to pump millions of additional tax dollars into a top-tier school like UVa when many more students could be helped to develop needed workforce skills at a much more affordable price by diverting most of that money to the community college system instead.
Not only do tax dollars go a lot farther at places like Blue Ridge Community College, they target more students who really need financial help. Students enrolled in community college tend to be less well-off than their counterparts at four-year institutions, are often the first in their family to attend a post-secondary institution, and are more likely to be employed in service jobs that have taken the biggest hit from the ongoing quarantines. And the workforce training, at which BRCC and its counterparts across the commonwealth excel, is vital for the long-term health of the state’s economy.
Thousands of Virginia families are now facing desperate financial situations due to the coronavirus shutdown, and dreams of sending their children to college next year have suddenly become out of reach for many. The General Assembly can salvage some of those dreams by asking four-year public colleges and universities to honor the tuition freeze without additional state funding next year. Lawmakers should then direct whatever money that can be spared to the community college system, which will likely see a spike in enrollment.
At times like this, all Virginians need to tighten their belts and focus on the basics.