Tuition freezes are a ‘watershed moment’ for college affordability, advocates say

By: - May 28, 2019 11:15 pm

The Wren Building at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.(NBC12)

At each of Virginia’s public colleges and universities, in-state undergraduate students won’t pay more in tuition next school year.

Instead, the schools will get millions more in one-time funding from the state in exchange for leaving tuition alone as a part of deal with lawmakers that advocates hope is the first step on the road to reversing years of climbing higher education costs.

“This is $50 million that Virginians would’ve otherwise paid in tuition,” said James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization that pushes for more affordable college education around the country.

“This is really significant. It’s not the end, but it’s an important moment in the recent history of Virginia higher education.”

The General Assembly included $52.5 million in the state budget to encourage public colleges to keep tuition flat for in-state undergraduate students. If the governing bodies of the schools adopted a no-increase plan, the schools get more money.

Some students will still see an increase on their bills — the deal didn’t place additional limits on all mandatory fees colleges can charge. Most schools increased some fees between three and five percent, on par with last year’s increases.

Some schools are going higher — the University of Mary Washington increased some fees 14 percent as part of a multi-year rate restructuring, which is a $556 annual increase for undergrads over last year.

Toscano, who is a former vice president of Tidewater Community College, said the tuition freeze is still a “watershed moment” that puts Virginia on track to tackle the next steps in college affordability. That could mean a number of policies, from reining in schools’ spending to keeping the tuition freeze in place.

“Hopefully this year was not an exception, but rather a model for the future,” said Jared Calfee, executive director of Virginia21, an advocacy group that focuses on issues related to young people in the state.

“Predictable and stable funding from the state will help keep tuition costs from rising, and adequately funding financial aid is absolutely critical to closing equity gaps and ensuring that low-income Virginians have equal access and opportunity to pursue and complete a post-secondary education.”

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia says undergraduate students at public institutions pay, on average, 55 percent of the cost of education in tuition and mandatory fees. The state’s share has fallen to 45 percent, “22 percentage points below the 67 percent outlined in the state’s cost-share policy.”

“SCHEV estimates that if the state share were aligned with the policy goal, tuition would be as much as $3,000 lower than current levels, or about 40 percent less,” the council says.

Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, who serves as the chair of the House Appropriations committee, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch he hopes the General Assembly can retain the tuition freeze in next year’s budget.

In addition to the freeze, lawmakers included $19 million in the final budget for state financial aid programs for low-income students and those who attend private schools.

A 2014 report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said that while the state has decreased funding to public colleges and universities, tuition increases have more than made up for the cuts. The report also called Virginia’s public institutions “among the nation’s most expensive for students.”

JLARC found the average tuition revenue collected per student increased $4,177 (adjusted for inflation) between 1998 and 2012, exceeding the $2,831 decrease in state per-student funding in the same time.

Between 2002 and 2012, tuition and fees at Virginia’s 15 public four-year colleges increased 122 percent, according to the report.

Increases have been particularly steep at William & Mary in Williamsburg, which had a 128 percent increase in tuition in a decade, Toscano wrote in an op-ed in The Daily Press.

The General Assembly’s one-time tuition freeze plan means it will be the first time in nearly 20 years that in-state undergraduate students at Virginia’s public colleges haven’t seen a tuition increase, Toscano said.

Six schools also froze tuition for out-of-state students and the community college system froze all student fees.

State funding increases will range from $183,000 more for Richard Bland College near Petersburg to $8 million for the Virginia Community College System.

The next step in addressing college affordability will require some work on colleges’ parts and might mean the state needs to impose conditions on state funding sent to colleges, Toscano said.

Like most state-funded bodies, money for public colleges and universities fell during the Great Recession, but spending on higher education has been on the rise for about five years, Toscano said. 

“It is a cop-out to blame state funding alone,” he said. 

In the JLARC report, tuition raises across the state were attributed to a number of factors beside decreases in state funding. The report cited increased spending on non-academic services, especially athletics and real estate and construction. The report estimated 56 percent of the increase in per-student cost between 2002 and 2012 has been for athletics, student housing, dining and security.

Toscano said that schools will need to be more disciplined when it comes to spending. The state could, if needed, limit what state money funds on campus, he said.

“That is a complex, public policy that requires revenue set aside for stable higher education funding,” Toscano said. “It also requires institutional accountability that really has not been demanded up until this year.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.