The moment wasn’t lost on the Virginia General Assembly’s House Appropriations Committee. Responding to a raft of tuition hikes across Virginia universities in 2018, the state’s budget compromise included a $41 million cut to proposed new funding for higher education.
"The cuts reflected actions by a number of institutions, including Virginia Commonwealth University, to raise tuition charges higher than previously announced,” House Appropriations Director Robert Vaughn said. “It no longer became necessary to provide that funding.'"
The stunning public rebuke was noteworthy for its mention of VCU, where - with a 6.4 percent increase - administrators pushed through one of the state’s largest tuition hikes.
Had VCU – a large, urban and traditionally-accessible institution in Richmond – gone too far?
Simply put, the answer was yes.
In response, Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust launched a campaign to monitor and elevate the voices of affected students and parents and connect them to decision makers throughout VCU’s tuition-setting process. What we confronted were carefully-crafted and selective institutional narratives, message control and gatekeeping, and a lack of due diligence on the part of trustees.
On March 21, VCU President Michael Rao presented the Board of Visitors with a proposed budget that exceeded $1 billion, 3.7 percent larger than the previous year’s budget. To balance the budget, the proposal also called for a 6.8 to 8.1 percent tuition hike for the coming academic year, more than the total of increases for the previous two years combined.
It’s remarkable that just 10 years ago, VCU’s budget was $657 million. Since then, VCU’s tuition and fees have increased 120 percent. Today, they’re second-highest in Virginia, when factoring net price.
So, it would come as no surprise that in the weeks and months leading up to the budget announcement, a diverse group of students and faculty members were fearing more of the same and actively calling for tuition freezes and fair pay for adjunct professors, while also challenging VCU’s controversial - and expensive - real estate acquisitions.
Whether their voices would be heard was another matter. Just a few weeks prior, Virginia’s state-supported universities had put together a highly-coordinated and successful effort to muzzle college students and paying parents by killing legislation that would have required boards of trustees (Virginia calls them “Boards of Visitors”) to hear from the public prior to voting on tuition increases.
In the face of a May 11 budget vote, VCU’s Student Government Association and the school’s Board of Visitors hosted a forum to give students the opportunity to discuss the budget and tuition hike proposals with the decision-makers themselves. In reality, the event itself was run by VCU administrators, and the only members of the Board in attendance were the two non-voting student representatives.
During the forum, VCU’s vice-president for budget and finance attempted to justify the tuition hike to a roomful of disgruntled students by pointing to reductions in state funding and diverting the blame. She shrugged off concerns over rising tuition rates by dismissing it as the “state of affairs for higher education,” even as she admitted that “Virginia is worse than many other states.”
Comparing VCU to the University of North Carolina, she also argued the need to attract more out-of-state students for the sake of diversity, and called for lower out-of-state tuition rates that would draw them to Richmond. The entire presentation was focused on priorities that gave the impression that VCU was more concerned with institutional prestige and keeping up with the “higher education Joneses,” instead of providing students with a quality, affordable college education.
Plainly, and especially when it comes to budgets, it’s the decision-makers themselves who need to hear stakeholders’ concerns. Administrators don’t set tuition rates, trustees do, and a presentation by a vice-president for finance was a poor substitute.
As the budget vote neared, it became clear that students and families would have no meaningful opportunity to be heard. Adding insult to injury, the vote would take place on the last day of final exams. But considering that VCU does not have a period for public comment during meetings, attendance by anyone outside of the closed circle of administrators and trustees mattered little.
To keep students and families from being drowned out, Partners moved quickly to provide both with platforms to voice their concerns. The campaign included an online petition, email campaign, and video testimonials featuring students frustrated with the rising cost of tuition and the lack of transparency in the budgetary process.
In the absence of public email addresses to contact individual trustees directly, emails sent through our campaign by students and parents were directed to the Board’s generic email address and also to President Rao, the vice-president for finance and budget, and Board’s student representatives to the Board of Visitors.
As we led efforts to build a student coalition against the hikes, VCU students from across the political spectrum came together in a united stance to express their “firm and unwavering opposition” to the proposed tuition hike and called for full transparency in the budgetary process.
What unfolded on May 11 was, to say the least, disconcerting. Before the meeting began, a student advocate approached President Rao and board rector Phoebe Hall and politely handed them physical copies of the online petition and student statements. In less than a week, over 400 people had signed the online petition and sent nearly 2,000 emails to VCU leaders calling on them to stop the tuition hike. Yet during the meeting, there was no mention of the petition or student statements, and nothing suggesting that trustees were ever informed of concerns about a proposed tuition hike.
After barely skimming the surface of a multi-million dollar budget, trustees declined an in-depth review and only one opposed its approval.
Without any discussion or deliberation, the VCU Board approved a significant tuition increase without appearing to bat a single eyelash. When the governing board of a multi-billion-dollar learning institution acts as little more than a rubber stamp, it should raise some serious questions.
Students and families deserve to be heard on the issue of college affordability, but the VCU experience shows how administrations can muffle their voices. By pushing a selective narrative and insulating board members from alternative viewpoints, administrators can easily undermine the concerns of their own consumers. . . consumers who just happen to be students and their families.
To be sure, state leaders and legislative bodies who confirm governing boards can ensure that our public institutions are held accountable. But when trustees lose sight of their responsibility to students and taxpayers in favor of college presidents and their administrations, something’s inherently wrong.
Unless the institutions and their trustees voluntarily increase transparency in the budgetary process, state legislators have a responsibility to hold them accountable.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch- VCU’s hometown newspaper - said it best when they wrote, “It’s time for Virginia lawmakers to step in and put a lid on tuition hikes, before the price of enriching a student’s mind sends her family to the poorhouse.”
Legislative mandates to ensure that trustees can hear from students and those paying the bills before setting tuition rates will promote a more responsible and open decision-making process. But as the VCU experience demonstrates, stakeholder voices will continue to be marginalized until that happens.