A Republican senator wants students to approve tuition increases before governing boards do

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A proposal from a Republican senator would require student approval before a public college or university approves a tuition raise.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, wants tuition hikes to go to the students who will have to pay for it before a governing board votes. His legislation, which he introduced last year too and calls “crazy,” calls for two-thirds of a school’s student body to approve the raise before formal adoption.

“I think that these trustees and presidents need to make the case to the student body that they are managing the money wisely, it’s really that simple,” Stuart said. “I think these young people are smart enough to approve it or disapprove it based upon the case these folks make to them. They’re much smarter than folks give them credit for.”

Last General Assembly session, lawmakers approved legislation that requires college governing boards to hold public comment before voting on a tuition increase. It passed unanimously in both chambers.

“Concerns about skyrocketing rates for tuition and fees aren’t isolated to one campus or another,” said James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust said at the time. “And college trustees who set them need to hear firsthand what the public thinks beyond getting briefings and handouts from college officials.”

Stuart said that was a good change, but it’s not enough. He’s not sure the bills he’s put in this year will pass, but it will force lawmakers to continue discussing college affordability.

“I think it’s the right thing to do. I think students should have a say in their own financial destiny,” he said. “I’m going to keep putting them in until we get something satisfactory for these students.”

From 2004 to 2019, instate undergraduate tuition increased $4,949, according to a pre-session presentation given by House Appropriations staff. Tuition increased $10,074 for out-of-state undergraduates. Neither of those figures include increases in mandatory fees.

Staff acknowledged part of that is driven by a decrease in state funding, which has decreased about $1,249 per student in the same time period. But for every $1 in state funding public colleges lost, tuition increased about $4, appropriations staff estimated.

“It could be argued that colleges have a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” staff wrote in their presentation.

Stuart wants to make other cost increases at public colleges more understandable. He filed separate legislation that requires university governing boards  to provide written notice of why they want to increase a president’s compensation and where the funding for the raise would come from. The boards must allow public comment on the change and the increase has to be voted on in an open meeting.

That means the next time Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao — the highest paid state employee — gets a raise, the school’s Board of Visitors will have to explain why and who is ultimately paying for the raise.

Stuart’s bill also says such a raise can’t happen the same year governing boards raise tuition.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s database of state employee salaries, seven of the 10 highest paid state employees were university presidents this past year:

  • Michael Rao at VCU made $1 million
  • University of Virginia President James Ryan made $962,875
  • J.H. Binford Peay at Virginia Military Institute made $837,267
  • Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands made $775,000
  • Paul Trible at Christopher Newport made $771,287
  • Angel Cabrera, who left his position as president of George Mason this summer, made $763,226
  • John Broderick at Old Dominion made $638,217

Those amounts include housing, cell phone allowances, transportation, bonuses and other items that made up the presidents’ total compensation.