As the General Assembly considers legislation to ensure that Virginia's college boards hear from students and families before voting to set tuition and fees rates, over 50 organizations and community leaders have come together to support mandated periods for public comment, including:
"No matter their affiliations or interests, Virginians want - and have a fundamental right - to be heard," said James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust.
"Today," said Toscano, "we know that 34 percent of students work 20 hours or more each week to help pay tuition, while senior citizens – whether incurred on their own or for their children or grandchildren - list unpaid student loans as looming roadblocks to retirement."
"Concerns about skyrocketing rates for tuition and fees aren't isolated to one campus or another. And college trustees who set them need to hear firsthand what the public thinks beyond getting briefings and handouts from college officials," he said.
Recognizing the issue's importance, the Virginia Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council also voted to require periods for public comment as a statewide best practice. "You guys highlighted a really big problem," said Council chair Richard Stuart, who is also a member of the Virginia Senate. "I had no idea they didn't allow people to speak when they're really affecting people's futures."
Writing in a letter delivered today to the General Assembly, the public comment coalition said:
"As they help prepare students for success in life and in their careers, Virginia's public colleges and universities also have key roles to play when it comes to workforce development and keeping Virginia's talent pipeline filled.
"The members of college governing boards chart a school's future, approve multi-billion-dollar budgets, and increase tuition and fee rates with little or no public discussion or opportunity for comment. That needs to change.
"Just as many other state-appointed boards and commissions are legally required to have periods for public comment to hear from diverse perspectives, public higher education should be held to the same level of accountability to Virginia taxpayers."
In 2018, legislation requiring a period of public comment unanimously passed the Virginia House of Delegates, only to die in the Senate. This year, legislation has been introduced by Delegate Jason Miyares (HB 2173) and Senators Chap Peterson (SB 1118) and Glen Sturtevant (SB 1261). And the mood in Richmond, Toscano said, is substantially different.
"As opportunities for too many bright Virginians slip away because a college degree is just too expensive, legislators are increasingly aware that not hearing directly from students and others who want to speak about who will be paying what - and why – is simply wrong," he added.