Democrats will weigh free community college, transparency measures, among other education initiatives

By: - January 3, 2020 12:07 am

Image by Cindy Parks from Pixabay

Republicans made college affordability a priority in their time as the majority party and used those successes — like last year’s tuition freeze — in campaigns.

This year, the new Democratic majority will consider the historic undertaking of making community college free for some students and decide if some of the Republicans’ past efforts to make college more accessible should continue.

In addition to budgetary items, lawmakers will have to contend with a recent Virginia Supreme Court decision that says it’s OK for foundations tied to public colleges to keep some donation information from the public, among other issues of transparency.

Free community college

Northam wants to spend $145 million to make community college free for some students seeking certain degrees.

His proposed “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” or G3, initiative will provide low and middle income students with free tuition and up to $1,000 in grants throughout their time in school to pay for things like books and transportation. The students will be required to sign a Community Engagement Agreement and complete two hours of work experience per credit hour they are enrolled in.

The program will be offered only in key subject areas to funnel more trained workers into industries in need of more people, like information technology and health care.

“With Virginia’s record low unemployment rate, businesses are hungry for skilled talent,” Chief Workforce Development Adviser Megan Healy said in a statement. “The G3 program will help Virginia businesses of all sizes fill open jobs, connect Virginians with the necessary training and credentials to find good-paying work and grow the commonwealth’s economy.”

The program won’t be offered to every student: only those who are eligible for full Pell Grants.

The G3 program will extend higher education to Virginians who have opted out of traditional college because of rising tuition costs, Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said in a statement.

But the proposal isn’t without criticism, and “opens up a much bigger conversation about how the state funds its public colleges and who benefits most,” Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust President James Toscano said.

“The $145 million budget initiative represents just a fraction of the billions in total state spending on higher education that favors a few resource-rich universities – with no affordability or employment outcomes required.”

Tuition freeze

In last year’s General Assembly session, Republicans made a deal with public colleges: If they kept tuition the same, the state would give them some extra money.

It worked, and every public college agreed not to raise tuition in exchange for a piece of $53 million lawmakers set aside (though it didn’t stop schools from raising mandatory fees, which were not part of the deal).

Northam didn’t include such an offer in his budget, but the General Assembly could implement the freeze through legislation, said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. 

“Last year Republicans set aside $53 million to freeze tuition at our public colleges for the first time in 20 years, making it easier for young people to afford higher education,” outgoing Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert said in a statement. 

“Not only does the governor’s budget fail to continue the freeze, it has a slush fund for House and Senate Democrats nearly four times that size. I doubt this is what voters were expecting when they voted for Democrats,” he said, referring to $200 million the governor reserved for the General Assembly to use as the body sees fit. 

Already, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary have approved tuition raises.

Returning in-state undergraduates at William & Mary won’t see an increase as part of the school’s policy of not increasing tuition for returning students. But in-state freshmen and transfer students will pay 3% more.

UVA students will see a 3.6% increase, which will range from about $500-$800 for in-state students and about $1,700 to $2,000 more a year for out-of-state students.

According to a presentation given to UVA’s Board of Visitors, the school anticipates $7 million less from the state and at least a $31.9 million increase in costs, about half of which is related to staff and faculty pay increases.

The school committed to paying its employees at least a $15 an hour living wage.

Financial aid

Northam wants to provide colleges with $45 million more for financial aid. The state already allocates about $273 million to help with various state grant programs for college students.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which allocates aid money to schools, reworked its formula to give more money to schools with more low-income students instead of sending more money to schools with higher tuition (the idea is that more expensive schools likely have more students who can afford higher education with less help). 

For private colleges, the governor proposed to increase the Tuition Assistance Grant amount to $4,000 per student. The program gives private school students financial aid based on a completed application, not need or merit. 

But the proposed budget also removes a provision that allows students to use TAG for online college programs, a change that will have a big impact on Liberty University, the largest private college in the state.

According to SCHEV data, there were 195,000 instances of registration for online classes at the school in the spring 2019 semester.

Transparency on campus

Following a state Supreme Court decision that ruled university’s foundations aren’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act, Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, said he plans on changing state law.

University foundations raise private funds to support public colleges. Last year, students at George Mason University sought information from the GMU Foundation about a large donation from conservative mega-donor Charles Koch and his family. The foundation claimed it wasn’t subject to the FOIA law and didn’t have to share that information.

The courts agreed.

Bulova said he plans to file two pieces of legislation to make it more clear what the public should be able to see.

One bill will clarify that any donation to a public university that comes with conditions related to academic operations has to be public. Another bill will call for those conditions to be explicitly laid out in a document when the money changes hands from foundation to university. 

“Even if the foundation isn’t subject to FOIA, the terms are and the terms and donations should be transparent,” Bulova said in an interview.

The legislation will codify several university policies GMU changed as students challenged its decision on donations, Bulova said, making it permanent and applicable to all public universities. Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, has filed the same legislation in his chamber.

Stuart also wants the General Assembly to consider how much information students get before a tuition increase or pay raise for university leaders. He’s proposed a bill that would require a student vote before a tuition increase and another bill that would require a more open process when giving some university administrators a raise.

Former journalists Dels. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery and Danica Roem, D-Prince William, have also re-filed legislation to protect student journalists at all educational levels. Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, has filed the same bill, which would protect the student’s First Amendment rights “regardless of whether the media is supported financially by the school board or governing board.” 

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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.