April 2, 2020
GMU leads the way as Virginia higher education adapts approach to public participation in a socially distant world

State Advocacy Manager

“You can’t see the forest through the trees.”

The student testimonies given today during a public comment period hosted by the George Mason University (GMU) Board of Visitors’ Executive Committee were both refreshingly honest and utterly devastating.

The harsh economic reality and financial uncertainty brought on by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic have created significant uncertainty for Virginia’s public colleges and universities. Despite the challenges of holding an in-person meeting as the health crisis calls for social-distancing, the GMU board moved forward with their planned public hearing during which students shared comments directly with board members through the video conferencing services, Webex.

In order to comply with both social distancing guidelines and Virginia’s open meeting laws, three members of the committee met in-person while others participated remotely.

Overall, the board did an admirable job adapting to current realities by maximizing online public participation. They encouraged the submission of public comment through both written and oral comments utilizing an online portal and video conferencing, respectively.

While moving to an entirely new mode of communication is not without its challenges – with the meeting being delayed due to technical glitches – it ultimately allowed for meaningful public participation despite the lack of physical attendance.

Before receiving testimony, Senior Vice President Carol Kissal gave a presentation that included financial forecasts in response to the pandemic, the potential impact on revenue, and proposed financial responses. Acknowledging that state funding is now uncertain – Governor Northam has stated that all new spending plans are on hold and under review by state lawmakers –Kissal pointed to shortfalls in revenue projections in making a case for a tuition increase.

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In the testimonies that followed, students made a passionate case against tuition increases by sharing their personal experiences and financial hardships brought on by the pandemic.

Malcolm Evans respectfully argued that raising tuition was “out-of-touch” considering the tough economic realities students now face and suggested that the board could not “see the forest through the trees.”

After being laid off as a result of the pandemic, he is now facing eviction, his parents are unable to support him financially, and “cannot afford a five percent tuition increase.” These financial struggles, Evans said,have led him to question whether he wants to continue investing in his college education.

He says his classmates, whose parents are unable to “bail them out” financially, face similar problems. While Evans acknowledged the difficult financial dilemma the university now faces, he cautioned the board against “pricing out students” to make up for lost revenue.

Partners’ student coordinator, Sara Deriso, echoed the concerns of other students and urged the board to freeze tuition and accept the state funding slated for tuition moderation if the state still offers it.

And another student warned that a tuition hike would be “stressful” to students and pointed to uncertainties surrounding financial aid and scholarships. She urged the board to “talk more to students” about the “extreme hardships” they are facing, cautioning that some may be embarrassed to discuss their economic disadvantages.

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When the new public comment law went into effect last July, nobody could have predicted just how relevant the requirements would become less than a year later.

Historically, colleges and university have been quick to rely on tuition hikes in making up for lost revenue during economic downfalls, shifting the financial burden to students and their families.

Raising tuition is the simplest solution, but the wrong one. And raising tuition at a time when students are increasingly questioning their financial ability and personal willingness to continue their education could only exacerbate the already expected decline in student enrollment.

Instead, institutions should be reevaluating their priorities and asking themselves more difficult questions… Where can we cut costs? Can any programs be consolidated? Can we cut back on student amenities to support academic programs? Can expensive expansion projects be put on hold? If enrollment is declining, do we even need this new building?

Listening to student voices is arguably more important now, than it has ever been. And as they seek to chart a new path forward, institutions could greatly benefit from consumer perspectives.

“It is not about numbers, it’s about real people,” said Chairman Davis as today’s meeting concluded.

And, right there, is exactly the lens through which institutional leaders should be looking today, and always.