Tuition raises would have to go to public comment under bills from both parties in both chambers

Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury

Governing boards of public colleges and universities may soon have to hold public comment sessions before raising tuition.

A bill from Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, unanimously passed the Senate this week. Petersen has introduced the bill during the last two sessions, but it got stuck in the Senate Finance Committee.

Over the summer, the Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council recommended that public colleges hold open comment periods before boards vote on tuition raises. The council didn’t advise that the practice needed to be law.

“I’m about transparency. Period,” said Petersen, who is carrying one of the public comment bills. “Virginia universities should not increase tuition without explaining to students and parents why they think they need more money. Here at the General Assembly, and in towns and cities across Virginia, public officials are required to have public meetings prior to increasing your taxes. Tuition shouldn’t be any different.”

In the House, Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, is carrying the same bill, which passed unanimously.

“Together, our public college boards are responsible for spending – and raising – billions of dollars each year,” Miyares said in a release. “Saying that the Virginians they’re responsible for educating can’t be heard when it comes to setting rates is old-school thinking.”

Petersen carried legislation in 2017 that dictates the current process for tuition raises. It originally included the public comment requirement, but it was removed before passing.

Under Petersen’s 2017 law, college boards have to issue public notice that a meeting will be held, allow people to attend the meetings and post a price range of potential tuition changes 30 days before a vote on the topic takes place.

This year, a coalition of groups like the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, Virginia Parent Teacher Association, the Virginia Education Association and Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust wrote a letter to lawmakers calling for public comment before tuition changes.

“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.  “And college trustees who set them need to hear firsthand what the public thinks beyond getting briefings and handouts from college officials.”