Northam Budget Stiffs Online Students

Liberty University graduates from online programs — stiffed in governor’s proposed budget.

by James A. Bacon

While Governor Ralph Northam’s proposed 2020-22 budget lavishes tens of millions of extra dollars on higher education, it does cut back in one area — support for distance learning. Specifically, the budget would tighten eligibility requirements for the Tuition Assistance Grant to exclude Virginia students at private, nonprofit colleges and universities who take online courses.

Northam wants to bolster the TAG program, the purpose of which is to support private nonprofit higher-ed institutions based in Virginia, by increasing annual grant awards from $3,400 per residential college student to $4,000. But the budget would end support for Virginia students taking courses online. As it turns out, two institutions with the most biggest online enrollments, Liberty University and Regent University, have conservative leadership.

Last week Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr., one of the rare higher-ed leaders to openly praise President Trump, suggested that the Democratic governor was targeting Liberty for his conservative views. Liberty’s online enrollment includes about 2,000 Virginia students. Assuming the university lost $3,400 per student, the budget would impact Liberty negatively by $6.8 million. “The very people they claim to champion are the ones they are harming,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “Those who claim to be tolerant are usually the most intolerant.”

The Northam administration denies any political motivation. “The purpose of the TAG program is to help address and offset the cost of college, notably brick-and-mortar costs associated with attending college,” a Northam spokesperson told the publication.

“Online programs, by their very nature, do not incur the same myriad of brick-and-mortar costs. … Governor Northam has made it a top priority to expand access to affordable, high-quality education. That’s why his budget includes significant investments in tuition-free community college, need-based financial aid for college students and support for Virginia’s historically black universities and colleges.”

At Regent University, about 70% of credit hours earned by students are completed online. Inside Higher Ed did not say what percentage were Virginia students. However, the university did make the point that 65% of its students come from low-income backgrounds, and 26% belong to minority groups. “The tuition pricing for online may be lower for a number of reasons,” said a Regent spokesman. “But that does not mean that that population does not face significant economic challenges based on their demographic and social background.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Let’s take Northam at his word, that he is not picking on Liberty and Regent because of their politically conservative leadership. Unless Falwell can offer tangible evidence to support such a charge, I am not inclined to believe it. For purposes of this discussion, I assume that Northam is genuinely motivated by a desire to make college more affordable and accessible to lower-income Virginians.

Why pick on online learning? If the goal is to make college more affordable, why not encourage more online learning. Let’s compare the cost of residential versus online learning at Liberty (for a full-time student in the 2020-21 academic year before financial aid).

Residential costs
Tuition — $23,800
Housing (least expensive option) — $4,759
Dining plan — $3,950
Student fees — $770
Total: $33,279

Online costs
$549 per course
Course content fees — variable (most within the $50 to $200 range)
Technology fee — $199 per semester
Total for 10 online courses: roughly $6,650

The tuition and fees for online enrollment runs about one-fifth that of residential enrollment. Why would the Northam administration want to penalize that option?

Inside Higher Ed quotes Stephanie Hall, a fellow at the Century Foundation, as saying that tuition assistance shouldn’t go to subpar programs. “Governor Northam’s proposal signals that his office wants to ensure state money is directed at quality, vetted programs. Despite receiving the most TAG money of all private institutions in Virginia, Liberty University spends the least on instruction — just 26 cents for every tuition dollar taken in. Other private colleges in the state, with smaller endowments, manage to spend more on instruction as a proportion of tuition revenue.”

I think that quality is a valid consideration. However, neither Hall nor the Northam administration has presented any evidence to suggest that the quality of online offerings is inferior to that of residential course offerings, only that Liberty spends less. The assumption is that quality is a function of money expended, which may or may not be the case given Liberty’s business model. (Among other differentiating factors, Liberty faculty members work on contract; they do not have tenure.)

Northam’s approach to higher ed, one could argue, consists of subsidizing the high cost structure of residential colleges by shoveling money into financial aid for lower-income students while insulating the institutions from online competition. That’s not a formula for making college education affordable in the long run; it’s a formula for perpetuating the status quo.