Coming to Higher-Ed Near You: Transparency, Tuition Freezes

by James Toscano

The year 2019 has been a historic one for public higher education in the Commonwealth.  Thanks to a series of recent state and institutional policy decisions, Virginia’s colleges and universities are on a track to more transparency, accountability, and affordability.

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Until this year, the trendline of skyrocketing tuition and fees in Virginia — an 80% increase over the past decade — showed no signs of slowing. In a springtime ritual, some institutions had raised tuition for 17 straight years.

Just last year, tuition and fees increased an average 5% across all public two- and four-year institutions in the Commonwealth, bumping Virginia up one spot to #6 for highest tuition and fees in the nation for public four-year institutions.

And until recently, students and families had limited opportunities to express their thoughts and concerns to those entrusted to make decisions on behalf of Virginia’s public hubs of higher learning. While many public boards and commissions have long been required by law to solicit public input through holding public comment periods, Virginia’s public colleges and universities have long been exempted from the rule.

While a small number of institutions had rules for permitting public comment at their governing board meetings, such as Longwood University and Virginia Military Institute, the vast majority did not. When Virginia Commonwealth University proposed up to an 8.1% increase in tuition and fees last year, a diverse coalition of students came together in a united stance against the hike. In the absence of a public comment period, student leaders were unable to voice their concerns to the Board of Visitors directly and were left handing paper copies of student statements and 400 petition signatures to university leaders before the board met and approved a 6.4% increase in tuition and fees.

But as it turns out, a lot can change in just one year.

Thanks to efforts by state lawmakers and institutional leadership alike, Virginia’s students and their families soon will be the beneficiaries of a temporary – but very significant – reprieve from rising college tuition. And these students and the public will have a permanent platform to influence governing board decisions.

This year, the General Assembly has allocated an additional $52.5 million in new state funding for public colleges and universities who agree to freeze in-state, undergraduate tuition and fee rates for one year. Beginning July 1, a new state law will require Boards of Visitors to hold public comment periods ahead of tuition decisions.

The response thus far from Virginia’s institutions has been overwhelmingly positive.

Earlier this week, Virginia Tech became the first institution to formally accept the General Assembly’s tuition moderation funding as the Board of Visitors voted unanimously to freeze in-state, undergraduate tuition. Last week, the college board of University of Virginia’s College at Wise voted to roll back a previously approved 3% tuition increase, a decision that is currently pending approval from the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors.

Several other university leaders and administrations have already announced support for freezing tuition in advance of their respective board meetings, including Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Christopher Newport University (CNU), the College of William and Mary (W&M), George Mason University (GMU), Old Dominion University (ODU), Radford University (RU), and the University of Mary Washington (UMW).

These Boards of Visitors will meet over the next several weeks, where they will vote on proposed rates for the 2019-20 academic year. Ahead of these decisions, some boards have held public comment periods for students and members of the public — before the state mandate even takes effect.

W&M held a public comment session in March with a small group of board members present, replicating a format introduced last fall. GMU gave students a similar opportunity last week following a packed board committee meeting.

In a positive show of public accountability, VCU’s Board of Visitors welcomed public comment from students during their budget forum in the presence of the full board in March – setting the gold standard for format.

Those institutions that met the spirit of the not-yet enacted law deserve credit for their efforts.

While many board decisions are still left to be made, these last few weeks have illustrated an encouraging shift in Virginia higher education, validating Partners’ year-long advocacy campaign for tuition control and public comment requirements.

As we know, college affordability is a shared responsibility of state lawmakers and institutional leadership. And thanks to the hard-work of a broad coalition of activists this year, for now, all responsible parties are holding up their end of the bargain.

Should this trend continue, the future of Virginia higher education looks particularly bright.

James Toscano is president of the Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a former sponsor of Bacon’s Rebellion.

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7 responses to “Coming to Higher-Ed Near You: Transparency, Tuition Freezes

  1. Even today, I refuse to call that school in Charlottesville the “flagship”, but it, Tech and W&M are the leaders, and it will be interesting to see if all three go along. If they do, the rest will hold….

  2. One does wonder where all the money is going from the increased tuition costs. Is there a correlation between the number of employees and tuition increases?

    Are they giving the existing employees hefty raises?

    They’re certainly not squirreling it away somewhere, right?

  3. In large part, you can thank Mitch Daniels for a lot of this new transparency and rethinking of tuition costs, even though Virginia beat his team in the Elite 8.

  4. Perhaps the following additional actions are now in order:

    1/ A detailed and full answer to why “While many public boards and commissions have long been required by law to solicit public input through holding public comment periods, Virginia’s public colleges and universities have long been exempted from the rule? Why this exception, particularly in light of what has been going on for far too long in higher education?

    3/ A detailed answer as to why the General Assembly found it necessary to “allocate an additional $52.5 million in new state funding for public colleges and universities who agree to freeze in-state, undergraduate tuition and fee rates for one year?” Was this”freeze” contingent on this additional $52.5 million payment state taxpayer dollars to these institutions. If so, why?

    4. As to the statement that “Beginning July 1, a new state law will require Boards of Visitors to hold public comment periods ahead of tuition decisions.” Has this law been passed? Where is it found? Has it been been negotiated in secret? Will it be negotiated in secret, if not passed? When will its details be made public, if it has not already happened?

    5/ With regard to the statement, “while many board decisions are still left to be made, these last few weeks have illustrated an encouraging shift in Virginia higher education, validating Partners’ year-long advocacy campaign for tuition control and public comment requirements.” Thanks are due to Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust for helping to make this happen, including to Helen Dragas who has done so much at personal cost.

    In addition, with regard to the statement that “many board decisions are still left to be made” and that a new law will be in effect “beginning July 1,” I believe it obvious that the governance of institutions higher education in Virginia is badly broken, and indeed out of proper control. This has been proven over and over again in Virginia over the past decades.

    What are possible remedies:

    Should not the powers of the professional administrations running these institutions be reigned in and controlled by far more effective, informed and accountable boards of Directors?

    Should not these boards of directors in turn be made directly accountable to the state and the public?

    I believe the current system of governance is a disgrace. And that the facts of this particular transparency and cost issue alone demonstrates this disgrace beyond any reasonable doubt.

    • Hi Reed! Thank you for your kind words. We certainly appreciate your insightful questions and comments. While I don’t have an explanation as to why governing boards of our public institutions were exempted from public comment historically, I am encouraged that lawmakers addressed the issue at long last by passing public comment legislation this year – which will become law when enacted on July 1. Partners vocally advocated for this legislation for it for over a year and was introduced by several lawmakers for multiple years now. The legislation received public hearings in subcommittee and committee meetings during the legislative session. You can read the full legislation here: http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?191+sum+SB1118

      While the $52.5 million for tuition moderation provides students and families with a short-term reprieve from rising college tuition, but there is still a strong need for more long-term solutions to control rising costs. Our organization is committed to advocating for long-term solutions for the problem, but understand that there is no quick or easy one.

      In response to your possible remedies regarding college governance, I’m proud to share that our organization has supported several successful legislative efforts to increase public accountability within public higher education. In addition to supporting public comment requirements, we have supported several other legislative efforts to ensure that governing boards are more effective, informed and accountable. Recently passed legislation requires that members of these Boards of Visitors be trained on student debt trends and requires Boards to provide explanations for any unexpected increases in tuition and fees. You can read more about these efforts on our website here: https://www.pcapt.org/blog/virginia-legislative-and-media-round-up

      While there is plenty more work to be done to address the issue, I am encouraged by the significant strides made this year. I hope to have your support as we continue to stand up for college affordability!

      -Stacie Gordon, State Advocacy Manager
      Partners for College Affordability & Public Trust

  5. For more proof of the historic corruption that is going on in our colleges and universities in America today, and their allies in America’s higher education industry today across the nation, see:

    https://www.openthebooks.com/

    This site contains latest reports, charts, videos, studies, and articles.

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