March 10, 2020
2019 is only the beginning for advancing college affordability in Virginia

State Advocacy Manager

It didn’t develop overnight.

College affordability, or the lack thereof, is an issue that’s plagued Virginia for years.

Yet despite tuition and fee rates at Virginia’s public colleges and universities increasing 79 percent in the last decade alone, the issue continued to simmer in obscurity.

Left unaddressed, Virginia has become the sixth highest ranking state in the nation for tuition and fees at public, four-year institutions.  Virginia families now spend an average 32 percent of household income to pay for college.

Like all complex issues, several factors are to blame for soaring college costs and vary depending on who you ask.

College administrators would tell you that reductions in state funding are to blame. In turn, legislators would reference the Great Recession, explain that cuts had to be made across the board, and then point to a steady increase in state funding for public higher education over the past several years.  Others may tell you that Virginia institutions increased tuition and fees $2 for every $1 they lost in state appropriations over the past 20 years.  Bloated institutional spending, rising healthcare costs, and the “keeping up with the higher ed Joneses” phenomenon are also likely to be blamed.

Meanwhile, and with state lawmakers and institutional leadership busy pointing fingers, Virginia’s students and parents were left out in the cold as they shouldered the burden of these out-of-control costs.

Left unaddressed, every issue left has its breaking point (as do the backs of Virginia’s students and their families).  But no matter who is to blame for the problem, eventually someone must step up and take responsibility for the solution.

And as it turns out, 2019 was the breaking point in Virginia.

Thanks to a surplus in state revenue, the General Assembly has allocated an additional $57.5 million for public colleges and universities who agree to freeze in-state tuition for the coming year.  While the effort originated in the House Appropriations Committee under the leadership of Chairman Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), it ultimately earned overwhelming support by both parties and in both chambers of the state legislature.

It’s not a long-term solution. . . not by a long shot.  But it does provide much-needed breathing room for Virginians who have seen their tuition rates increase every year since 2003.

Before the Virginia General Assembly gaveled in on January 9, Virginia’s college students and their families were facing yet another year of tuition increases.  Now, it doesn’t have to be so.

The ball is in the schools’ courts to accept their share of responsibility and act in the best interests of Virginia’s students.  Some institutions have already risen to the occasion, pushing for tuition freeze funding behind the scenes.  Others may need convincing still, but I am hopeful they will do the right thing.

This year has been a significant milestone for public higher education in Virginia as lawmakers addressed the issue of college affordability.  When enacted by the Governor, legislation recently passed by the General Assembly will also increase consumer transparency and public accountability in public higher education.

Financial aid award letters will soon be easier to understand, helping students and families to make better-informed financial decisions.  Colleges will be required to clearly identify courses that offer low- or no-cost textbooks or materials in course catalogs, making it easier for students to make more affordable choices.  Board members will be trained on student debt trends and required to provide explanations for any unexpected tuition increases.

And last, but not least, college governing boards will be required to hear from those most affected by decisions to raise tuition, including students and their families, by holding a required public comment period.  The Partners-led coalition of community leaders and organizations who rallied behind the rights of students and families to be heard was remarkable and spoke volumes about how widespread the impact of college affordability has become.

When AARP-Virginia, the Virginia Parent Teacher Association, the Virginia Education Association, and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the National Campus Leadership Council, and U.S. PIRG come together, it’s clear these are mainstream issues.

Over the past year, Partners has been proud to lead the fight for real and meaningful reform to help make college more affordable for Virginia’s students and their families.  These efforts, with support from passionate community leaders and organizations, have elevated the voices of countless Virginians reeling from the impact of rising college costs, and the results demonstrate just how loudly they’ve echoed in Virginia’s Capitol.

And there, the dam has broken and the floodgates are open.  

This year, the Virginia General Assembly laid the groundwork for more transparency, accountability, and affordability in public higher education.

More remains to be done and this is only the beginning, but we have you to thank.