May 7, 2019
Partners' 2019 Legislative Agenda for Virginia

Moving to an affordable higher education for Virginians

Tuition and fees at Virginia’s public colleges and universities have increased at an alarming pace, increasing 74 percent between 2006 and 2016.  Today, Virginia ranks sixth for the highest tuition in the country, placing undue burdens on Virginia’s students and families.  As wages have remained relatively flat, now is the time to rein in tuition increases for students and their families and set Virginia on a path to more affordable higher education.

Here are several ways to help do that:    

1. Transparency, accountability and public participation

The Code of Virginia gives governing authority over Virginia’s public colleges and universities to Boards of Visitors, whose members are appointed by the governor.  Although these boards exist to bring accountability and weigh the interests of consumers, taxpayers and other community stakeholders on behalf of the General Assembly and Virginia’s citizens, decision-making is often based solely on information and briefings delivered by an institution’s administrators or president.  Many other state-appointed boards and commissions are legally required to have periods for public comment to hear from diverse perspectives.  But today, decisions to raise tuition and fees for students attending Virginia public colleges and universities happen without mandated opportunities for public input.  Given the significant impact tuition hikes have on Virginia students and families, their perspectives, opinions and concerns deserve to be heard by those who set fees and tuition rates. Enhanced training for board members will also sensitize them to the most pressing issues in higher education facing the Commonwealth.  

2. Rate-setting reform

The most affordable institutions would be given the greatest flexibility to raise prices up to a cap, while the most expensive would be given the least flexibility to raise prices.  This approach recognizes that some institutions have done a better job at holding down prices over time than others.

3. Moving towards a better, more fair outcomes-based funding model

Despite noble efforts such as the Top Jobs law and other measures to tie financial support to higher education outcomes, the core funding model for Virginia’s public colleges and universities - known as “base adequacy” -  remains unchanged.  Loosely based on enrollment, this antiquated approach fails to provide institutional incentives or insist on accountability for successful student outcomes. Furthermore, Virginia’s resource-rich institutions get richer while less well-endowed colleges struggle, and the vast majority of Virginia’s students are priced out of a quality public higher education.

Outcomes-based funding is the growing policy standard across the U.S. that funding for higher education should be connected to student success, not just enrollment.  By re-tilting our financing approach away from historic biases and toward greater results and equity, Virginia can better meet the needs of our college-bound students and ensure greater accountability for the use of taxpayer dollars.

4. Create a $100 million College Affordability Fund

As college costs continue to soar, lawmakers should encourage institutions to lower consumer costs by providing a new, additional revenue stream for targeted initiatives, including:

These and other investments can lead to sustained tuition reductions and affordable pathways to economic and personal successes.

To help the Commonwealth find efficiencies and better manage its $10+ billion state higher education public assets, funds will also be used to launch a new Center for Cost Containment in Higher Education. The Center, which will report to the “Op Six” state higher education finance and planning group, will develop best practices for cost containment, leveraging fresh, expert perspectives from outside Virginia.