It is premature to declare victory in the effort to restore sanity to tuition decisions at Virginia’s state colleges, but several factors seem to be coming together to give students and their families a break for the coming school term. Repeat: For the coming school term.
One year’s pause, or “breather” to use a word bandied about during the General Assembly session, in tuition increases will not reverse the trends making Virginia higher education too expensive for many without a crushing level of debt. And this year’s pause, if it happens, took several years in a row of improving state funding to accomplish.
Those who have said that shrinking state support was the problem all along now have a good talking point.
After years of mostly-ignored pleas to hold the line on tuition, this year the legislators put an enforceable contingency on about $53 million of the $1.6 billion in state general fund support for higher education. You can read the budget provision and the individual incentive per school here.
Peter Blake, director of the State Council of Higher Education, said today he is reasonably confident based on his own conversations that most and possibly all will accept the money and hold the line. For many it is equivalent to a 2 to 4 percent tuition increase, enough so “they’re going to go along and play ball.”
He noted the $53 million with the strings attached was accompanied by additional funds for faculty salaries and need-based financial aid, with no strings. This comes at a time of flat enrollment, so the dollars per student are rising. But what happened this year may be “more episodic than long-term commitment,” Blake said. Nobody is publicly discussing next year yet.
Most of the schools still haven’t officially acted. Yesterday’s Bacon’s Rebellion report from James Toscano lists William and Mary among the schools unlikely to increase tuitions for next year, for example, but the most recent report I can find has its board reconsidering the increase it had already approved, with the meeting still to come. William and Mary now charges a four-year fixed price, so only next August’s incoming freshman are in play on this decision, but it will reduce four years of revenue projections for the school.
Some schools, including Virginia Tech, have announced that given a choice of increasing tuition or receiving a supplemental appropriation from the state contingent on freezing tuition, it will take the extra state money. Most boards will act before June.
As Tech, William and Mary, and the University of Virginia go, so will likely go the rest of them. William and Mary and Virginia have been leading the pack in raising tuition based on their perceived market appeal, and both schools have backers eager to take them fully private.
This summer SCHEV will make the final certification of which schools meet the General Assembly’s conditions and qualify for the extra appropriations. There are no caps imposed on non-E&G (education and general) fees or on tuition for out-of-state students, who may number more than 57,000 next fall.
This contingency language is the strongest action the General Assembly has taken to arrest the tuition increases since the outright tuition freeze imposed under Governor George Allen. The idea originated in the House Appropriations Committee, not with the Governor’s introduced budget, and the dollar amount grew as the schools warmed to the idea. Blake said he believes the House proposal in January was news to the schools, not a product of pre-session negotiations.
SCHEV shared quite a bit of financial information at my request, posted here for the wonks, looking at trends over a decade or so. This year’s effort to reward a tuition freeze with enhanced funding follows years of steadily improving state support, reversing a trend of shrinking support which bottomed out about 2012.
General fund support per in-state full-time four-year student was $7,637 eleven years ago, hit bottom at $5,743 in 2012, and in the coming term is estimated to be back up to $7,175, a 25 percent increase from the low point. Those are nominal dollars, of course, and with inflation factored in state support remains well below the level of the 2000s.
Helping that trend, and perhaps giving school leaders a sharper focus on price sensitivity, is continued flat enrollment overall. The in-state enrollment of 141,591 last fall was up only 2 percent from a few years earlier. Community colleges remain in decline.
Along with the general support increasing, so is the support for need-based financial aid, up 50% on a per-student basis in the past four years. This year’s budget added $15 million for that on top of the $53 million tuition freeze funds. Couple increases in need-based aid with frozen tuition and flat enrollment, and the schools can stop chasing their tails. It might even reverse the trend of colleges increasing tuition on paying students simply to transfer the money to scholarship students.
The General Assembly did impose a requirement for a public hearing as tuition and fee increases are proposed, starting next year. That bill’s success followed a major effort by Toscano’s Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, but the law already required 30 days advance notice of any action on tuitions, and students and the public have been making plenty of noise for years.
A one-year reprieve is good news, including for legislators fighting what will be bitter reelection campaigns. Keeping the price frozen for a series of years would be a great outcome, but unlikely. Holding closer to some reasonable annual inflation measure would be a huge improvement over past years but doing even that will depend on continued efforts on general budget support and support for need-based aid. A bit more pressure on the spending side wouldn’t hurt, either.There are currently no comments highlighted.