Legislators Haggle Over Higher Ed Funding Issues

The 2017 legislative sessions of the Virginia General Assembly is well under way and a number of Southwest Virginia legislators have used this time to address issues surrounding higher education across the Commonwealth.

On January 17, more than a dozen state delegates and senators from both parties and across the state came together to condemn the rising costs of higher education at Virginia institutions and to encourage schools to admit more in-state students. The group also introduced more than 30 bills addressing these issues, as well as a perceived lack of transparency from colleges and student loan practices.

One shared concern was that Virginia’s more elite institutions are giving millions of dollars to out-of-state students at the expense of the in-state students who can’t afford the high costs.

Delegate Terry Kilgore (R-Gate City) was among the group of lawmakers present at the gathering. Kilgore’s time speaking focused predominantly on the unaffordable, rising costs of higher education. He noted that while a college education might seem unaffordable for a family in Fairfax County, the costs create a barrier for families in Southwest Virginia, particularly in Kilgore’s district.

UVa-Wise, which is located in Kilgore’s district, has managed to maintain a low cost for students despite the cost increases across the state, even being “ranked first in the nation’s public liberal arts colleges for graduating students with low debt” by U.S. News and World Report in 2016.

Another Southwest Virginia legislator, Delegate Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke), also spoke at the gathering and introduced his own measure, HJ 585. This bill requests the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia conduct a study comparing Virginia’s rates of admissions for in-state students to that of other states, so that legislators and other education leaders in Virginia can better see where Virginia currently stands.

While the group showed a bipartisan concern for the rising costs, there lacked a bipartisan solution to them, as few of the legislators or their bills agreed with one another on solutions. Many other legislators have seen this press conference and slew of legislation as a backlash against higher education by the Virginia legislature. Earlier this year it was revealed that the University of Virginia had amassed $2.2 billion dollars in a Strategic Investment Fund, which is to be used to “provide transformational investments in the quality of a UVa education, of its research and of its health care services, without relying on tuition or tax dollars,” according to UVa’s website.

Its detractors, many in the bipartisan group, have labeled it a “slush fund” and also hope to see its end in their new legislation.

“I’ll remind everybody here, we don’t own the universities and colleges that the board of visitors doesn’t own the state colleges and universities, it’s the citizens of Virginia that own the state colleges and universities,” said Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach).

State senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) introduced a bill to specifically address the Strategic Investment Fund. The bill states if a state college or university has any reserve funds greater than 150% of its cost of education for the total students enrolled for the year, then the school will be forced to use the fund to reduce in-state tuition for applicable students. If the bill passes, UVa will have 5 years to spend the $2.2 billion dollars.

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