Virginia public colleges freeze their tuition for the first time in almost 20 years
By Keya Vakil
May 30, 2019

Virginia has seen a 79% increase in the average cost of public college tuition in the past ten years, but this year, in-state tuition at every state school will remain the same.

The freezes are the result of increased state funding from the General Assembly and mark the first time in nearly 20 years that all 15 public colleges in Virginia are maintaining their existing rates.

Most schools made their decisions in March and April, but Longwood University became the final school to freeze rates two weeks ago, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

It’s a welcome change for students and their families, who cover 55% of the cost of tuition at Virginia’s four-year schools. Virginia set a cost-sharing goal in 2004 to cover two-thirds of the cost of a public education, but the state has never met that goal. The aftermath of the Great Recession saw Virginia actually decrease its public education funding.

Schools responded by raising their tuition rates, but they also began to prioritize spending on non-academic services, such as athletics and renovations, in order to attract prospective students.

As a result, students have seen their tuition go up by at least 4% each year since the 2008-2009 school year and every four-year public college in Virginia increased its tuition by at least 50% over that time.

Rates increased so dramatically that a 2014 report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission called Virginia’s public colleges “among the nation’s most expensive for students.”

As the cost of Virginia’s public colleges were rising, the economic disparity between those with a bachelor’s degree became even more pronounced. According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), Virginians with a bachelor’s degree will earn $2.3 million in their lifetime, compared to only $1.3 million for those who have only a high school diploma.

The skyrocketing cost of college combined with the clear benefit of having a bachelor’s degree led tens of thousands of Virginia students to take out student loans and fall deep into debt.

In 2017, students who graduated from Virginia’s public colleges did so with an average student loan debt of about $30,000, according to the Washington Post.

Additionally, 93% of Virginia college students and recent graduates said that their debt made it harder to pay bills and/or kept them from buying a home, according to a 2017 survey from Virginia21, a non-partisan organization that seeks to engage young people in the political process.

After years of increasing tuition rates, skyrocketing student loan debt, and a surge of student default rates, the General Assembly finally started to address the problem this year, allotting $57.5 million in this year’s state budget for colleges that agreed to freeze their in-state tuition rates.

Not only did every eligible school agree to do so, but six schools also froze their out-of-state rates and every Virginia community college also froze its rates.

Lawmakers also included $19 million in the final budget for financial aid programs for low-income students and those who attend private colleges.

After nearly two decades of rising costs, students, families, and education advocates are pleased.

James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a D.C.-based nonprofit that pushes for affordable college education around the country, told the Virginia Mercury that the tuition freeze marked a “watershed moment” that put the state on track to tackle the next steps in making college more affordable.

Some elected officials agree that the increased funding is only a starting point.

What those next steps are remain to be seen; they could include maintaining the tuition freeze for years to come or perhaps the state might even meet its own 15-year-old cost-sharing goal.

Despite that uncertainty, one thing is clear: for the first time in almost 20 years, the momentum is finally starting to shift and students are finally getting some relief.

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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