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.

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21 responses to “Northam Budget Stiffs Online Students

  1. One Major aspect you’re missing in today’s WOKE world:
    Which learning system is more green? Which has a larger carbon footprint?
    That aspect only would require more support for one type of learning over another, given the rhetoric of today’s DEMS.

  2. There has always been some tension between the older institutions and these two conservative newbies, and frankly some jealousy over their rapid growth and massive revenue streams. When Liberty started taking TAG I laughed, recalling Jerry Senior’s many comments about taking the government’s money and risking its interference. Junior ain’t Senior, as is proven often….. The bottom line is the long term trend is to more online content, if not totally online completion, and for TAG to ignore that is shortsighted. A compromise is not hard to see. If Northam was giving these two schools the shaft, however, he was getting encouraged by their supposed peers I suspect.

  3. I like online but there’s a world of difference between good ones and bad ones and consequently the value of the diploma.

    One of the big risks with online is how to assure that it’s the actual student doing the work and passing the tests.

    There are methods to make sure the student is the one doing the work and tests…but it costs more to operate online than if you do not do that.

    Isn’t Liberty also the one that censored the student newspaper?

  4. One aspect about the TAG program that is overlooked is that there is no need requirement. Thus, the program has the effect of subsidizing those families who could afford to send their kids to private colleges such as the University of Richmond, Washington & Lee, Hampden Sydney, etc. anyway.

    As for Liberty, how many of those 2,000 on-line students are full-time? TAG is available only to full-time students.

    If TAG were available to on-line students at Liberty, a $4,000 grant would cover about 30% of the cost for two semesters, whereas that same grant would cover only about 12% of the yearly cost for a residential student. Why should on-line students receive a higher rate of assistance?

  5. I recently rebuilt my VW 1600 engine for my 1970 Bus. I had zero mechanical skills. I bought 1 book, 900 dollars in parts, and watched a number of videos. It took me 2 weeks to tear down and rebuild this engine. It has perfect endplay, and factory correct compression. Runs like a dream. If I had gone to school at the Northern VA Community College to learn this it would have cost about 6 grand. It cost me less than a thousand dollars, my free time, and some perseverance to rebuild this motor.

    My point is simple. We are now in an age where knowledge and skills are very easily available, accessible, and free. College whether it is online or brick and mortar is increasingly becoming obsolete.

    You still need to go to satisfy professional standards for careers in medicine, law, engineering, etc. Outside of that you might be wasting time and money going to school.

    • I have a 2001 nissan maxima. Are you available?

    • A brilliant observation, and typically true. This includes the humanities as well. America has most inefficient and counter-productive system of higher education in the world, and increasingly so in grades K-12.

      Talking about “instruction and quality” here in this TAG program proposal is laughable. For some reason, we keep repeating the myths, falsehoods and outright lies. It’s akin to the long chronic barrage of wind and solar energy fed by that lobby and its special interests. To much money is around to be grabbed, to ever stop the propaganda machine and political games. So nobody is straight or honest, much less inclined at all to fix the real underlying problems.

      So we lie and turn our heads.

      And so it only gets worse. The more money we spend the worse it becomes and the more harm it does, because the money is spend on most everything imaginable but instruction and learning and proving it. The greed is insatiable. Plus real teaching is hard, and does not pay anywhere near as well as feeding those who run the beast, so real teaching to, and learning of, kids is no more than the ongoing disguise for ever more spending needed to keep the our 60 old racket still going, the one that is highly successful and lucrative for all involved, save for the students and parents who are victims not beneficiaries.

      Of course there are some exceptions but they remain in the distinct minority, found only if you work hard and smart at uncovering them amid all the scams. We been talking about this for years, going nowhere best I can tell.

    • As for some higher education real problem fixing regarding cost and learning, instead of pretending to fix problems that we only make worse at great public expense, I came across this comment of mine from January 5, 2018, as example:

      “But as to teachers (professors) and curriculum, I believe we need far more teaching and far less research. We need many more fully empowered and appreciated great teachers in our universities to fulfill the primary mission of our public institutions of higher learning, that is to teach our youth. We already have these kinds of great people in relative abundance, but we fail to recognize, appreciate, empower and support them.

      In contrast to the supply of great teachers, all societies are in short supply of teachers who match the creative and world changing spark of Socrates, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. Let us not pretend that we alone, for the first time in human history, have solved this shortage of world class exceptional genus, and lets stop wasting vast sums of monies on the assumption that we have. We did not make Socrates, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, they found and made us and our world, in spite of our best efforts to ignore or stop them.

      So now, instead of pretending that we are Gods, lets practice humility, and admit to our natural limitations. Lets rebuild our undergraduate Arts and Sciences (Humanities). Lets restore integrity and perspective into our universities’ research. Lets rebuilt, and renew and reinforce rigorous standards within our curriculum and its teaching, and its learning, and its testing. This should includesfar more rigorous demands on and expectations from our students in their academic pursuits. Particularly so it as regards their required amounts of reading and writing, and verbal and logical expression (including mathematics and core cultural literacy), and its testing.

      And lets build and enforce honest admissions and retention standards for our universities, standards that are appropriate to our students real success in real and honest learning programs in higher education. Lets stop issuing pretend college and university degrees which today are the norm not the exception. And, at the very same time, lets built rewarding and demanding alternatives for those who are not mean for college, and give them the respect, attention, dignity, and chances for success that they too deserve.

      Perhaps more important of all, lets keep politics the hell out of education. Political bias has no place in higher education whether in be in science or the liberal arts, or business, or law, or medicine. Political bias poisons education. The proper education of our youth must confine politics in their education to the study of its evils, necessity, tools, methods and promise as an essential part of a students cultural literary and literacy as a productive citizen, NOT as a professor’s or institutions way to close the students mind or mold him or her into a tool to promote some professor or institutions political agenda. Expel Professors from the academy who violate this rule. Stop the funding of all public institutions of higher learning that violate this rule.”

      Until we start thinking this way about our vast higher education problems, we’ll just keep spinning our wheels matters ever worse.
      for more see:

    • re: ” johnrandolphofroanoke | February 5, 2020 at 3:59 pm | Reply
      “I recently rebuilt my VW 1600 engine for my 1970 Bus. I had zero mechanical skills.
      My point is simple. We are now in an age where knowledge and skills are very easily available, accessible, and free. College whether it is online or brick and mortar is increasingly becoming obsolete.”

      how much money did you have in “instruction” ? zero, right?

      if you can do it for free, why not a lot of others?

      perhaps a new product should be offered and that is certification tests for standard college subjects.


    • I have to disagree with you. To accomplish that rebuild, you had to have some mechanical ability, if not specific skills. I used to try to repair my car, with the help of manuals. It was a disaster.

  6. In the context of your column on 1/10, plundering the middle class, and yesterday’s, adapt or die, how is this proposal getting so much benign attention? I don’t see why it’s right to create yet another income-based subsidy for those without the income to send their kids to college, while at the same time talking endlessly about the need for higher education for any child (or parent intent on helping their kid) to succeed in life. It boils down to this: ya gotta have it, but we’ll only help this guy; so guess what, life just got more expensive for the ones not helped! Another de facto tax on middle class living standards — relative to the subsidized poor and the indifferent rich.

    If higher ed in its lower-cost, commuter-based variant really is a modern necessity of child-rearing, then let’s treat it like high school and provide it on equal terms to all. I say, use the existing Tuition Assistance Grant framework, and provide the same grant amount to all qualified students without a parent’s income test. Limit the amount to what would be sufficient to attend community college, and place no restrictions on type of eligible institution the student may attend (public, private, residential, commuter) as long as it is accredited, audited etc.

    Yes of course that would cost much more than Northam’s proposal. But I see no more rationale for low income subsidies for education than I see for low income subsidies for health care. Education and health care are basic requirements for life — specifically the life of the kid, not the parents. What, you really think there should be better health care and better educational opportunity for the poor and for the wealthy than for middle class folks? You would treat education likewise? And I will show you another cohort of angry voters.

    How much extra would it cost? Expanding VAG to cover all students would make it into a transfer not to a specific income class but broadly to a specific category: college aged kids, or their parents if still dependent. This would help ensure the better education of the Virginia workforce, in the economic competition with other areas of the country to attract jobs. The institutions they spend it on would benefit, though the same adapt-or-die competition would apply to the smaller/less efficient ones. But the principal benefit, IMO, would be the reduction in education debt load incurred by middle-class kids, perhaps approaching dollar for dollar. I’m not worried about the kids from better-off families taking too much of this benefit; there simply aren’t that many of them. Plus, with Northam’s generally more progressive State taxes to pay for it all, those wealthier families (including those without college kids to educate) will have paid their fair share.

    • A bit of a roll, you’re on.

      Plus, when you tote up all the harms, costs, and real grievances, and lost opportunities, that Northam’s fantastic cocktail of new bills and proposals will suddenly inflict on real working people – the middle class in Virginia of all ages and everywhere (but even more so those in long suffering and stagnant rural and small metro Virginia – the set backs and losses they’ll suffer, and the ruination of their future that now is otherwise brighter than its been for generations, indeed a likely renaissance of whole regions now within their sight and grasp,

      All this wreckage now threatened them (their livelihoods, lives and family, wage, income, job, property, and spirit) shocks the conscience, and the threat astounds. And Why? For what ends? For what purpose?

  7. Costs a lot of money for the technology online. It costs for the teachers too.

  8. in terms of helping the low-income and not the middle-income – why not means-test it like we do a lot of things including the ACA health insurance, and other entitlements?

    re: cost of online technology.

    there are two parts –

    1. – the associated costs of making the course “online” – that can range from super simple and cheap video lecture to the full range of audio-visual aids, charts, graphs, etc

    2. – how to assure that the student registered to the course and taking the content is the one taking the quizes and tests and getting credit?

    that requires some significant technology and professional competent in implementing it.

    But why not have the state do that part for any/all Virginia Higher Ed as a voluntary or mandatory participation?

    why not actually have the State stand up an online portal of courses that can be provide by participating schools

    ……… such that, any kid, of any income, anywhere in Virginia can register for online College – take the coursework and then receive credits that the State awards and allows to go into a course portfolio that can then receive a Diploma once the course requirements are fullfilled?

    This approach would fix several problems that currently are festering including the cost of higher ed, who should get financial help, geography, re-training,

    That would come about with one online portal for the State. The State could put that out for bid among the current higher ed institutions. Let one be the lead institution for a Virgina Online Education Portal that allows any Virginia (or perhaps out-of-state), kid of any economic means, take any course and get certifed credentials upon successful completion.

    I suspect most higher ed will be opposed to it and certainly Liberty will but what would be the downside of doing this?

  9. “higher” education is much, much simpler with the internet and the real problems are the “silos” of all the competing institutions who are actively seeking to increase enrollment and income revenues and really don’t care if they are duplicating courses or programs – even if they are using taxpayer money to do it.

    The primary mission of the state – for any taxpayer money “transferred” to selected groups of citizens is that it be as cost-effective as it can possibly be.

    Thus we see conversion of Medicaid to managed care.

    We see VDOT putting out for bid – construction instead of doing in house.

    and we see the State, not without some issues, contracting out IT to one company responsible for information technology for the State, vice each agency configuring their systems without regard to whether they are interoperable with other state agency systems.

    It makes perfect sense for the State to stand up a higher ed portal that offers courses, certifies completion and awards degrees. They can contract the whole thing out and should but the point is to step in and help all people (kids and adults) who seek affordable higher ed – and the state does it in the most cost-effective way possible by having it be self-supporting by charging fees – that are means-tested.

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