A new report by Education Reform Now (ERN), a nonprofit think tank that is seeking to create a more progressive education system, sharply criticizes Virginia’s higher education finance system on affordability and equity grounds.
“Democratically controlled legislature and Democratic governor have increased total funding for Virginia’s public universities markedly over the past three years, but the Commonwealth still has an irrational, inequitable, and unjust public higher education finance system in need of reform,” the report summarizes. “Even with a significant increase in state investment for the most recent fiscal year, public support for Virginia higher education has not kept up with rising costs and an expanded pool of students, leading to not just higher tuition and fees for students and families, but some of the highest tuition and fee levels in the country and ever-rising student loan debt, particularly for working-class, low-income, and racial minority students.”
Education Reform Now describes itself as a non-partisan, nonprofit think tank and advocacy organization that promotes increased resources and innovative reforms in K-16 public education, particularly for students of color and low-income families. ERN says they seek forward progress in public education—at the federal, state, and local level—developing and advocating for new, bold ideas and mutually reinforcing policies in elementary, secondary and postsecondary education.
The report highlighted four main drivers of the inequalities:
- Virginia lacks a transparent and consistent funding formula linked to institution need, access, affordability, and success. For instance, George Mason serves more than twice as many students receiving Pell Grants as the University of Virginia (UVA), yet receives a third of state appropriations per FTE student.
- The Commonwealth misdirects financial aid. The Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant Program (VTAG) is non-need and non-academic merit-based—directing roughly $10 million in funding each year to Virginia students who neither have a demonstrated financial need nor indication of heightened academic merit. Liberty University takes in $17 million a year in VTAG funds despite a 17% Black student graduation rate.
- Virginia has divested from public higher education. Christopher Newport University, located in U.S. House of Representatives Chairman Bobby Scott’s Congressional District has the second-highest average net price of any public, four-year college in the nation. UVA has the fifth-highest in-state tuition and fees among public flagships. Additionally, Virginia ranks 44th in the nation in state funding for community colleges per FTE student.
- A rising percentage of Virginia’s postsecondary graduates leave with student loan debt, with 90% of students attending the two public HBCU’s graduating with debt, half of whom owe upwards of $40k.
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