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House, Senate Disagree on Higher Ed Funding Priorities

Students walking through the VCU campus
Students walk through the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

It’s unclear if Virginia lawmakers will reach a budget deal in time to adjourn Saturday. As of Thursday morning, there were still key disagreements between members of the House and Senate about higher education priorities.  

“We have issues remaining in our approach to higher ed, the same issue that we had last year,” said Del. Mark Sickles (D - Fairfax) on the way to the House floor Thursday morning. Sickles is one of a few delegates tasked with helping finalize the state budget.

The House proposes giving a chunk of money to universities in exchange for holding tuition flat next year, and limiting any tuition increase to 2 percent the following year.   

“I love the idea, I just don’t think they put enough money in the budget to do what they want to do,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds (D - Bath County). 

“At least that’s not what the colleges and universities are telling us.”

The amount each university would receive as part of the freeze deal, what lawmakers are calling a “tuition moderation” fund, is spelled out in the House budget, although the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia says those allocations aren’t based on a formula. 

There’s also less funding overall proposed for “tuition moderation” this year, compared to last year’s budget. That’s in-part because funding for a proposed salary hike for faculty was embedded in that budget line item, which wasn’t the case last year. Faculty also wouldn’t be eligible for as high of a pay raise as last year, when lawmakers approved up to a 5 percent pay hike. 

“They [the House] put a lot of issues under the umbrella of higher education,” said Sen. Tommy Norment (R- James City), another budget conferee. “And until we resolve higher education, we can’t do much else as far as in compensation because all of that compensation is embedded in the House budget. Until we break it out, we can’t address a lot of other things.” 

Meanwhile, the Senate is taking a different approach to higher education funding. The Senate does include more money for need-based financial aid overall, and a new equity fund to provide more targeted operating support for colleges with more low-income students.  

“Our position always has been that we put more money into financial aid,” Deeds said. “Because we all have to agree that affordable higher education has to be the goal. That’s the way we create a middle class. We give them the tools to succeed through higher education.”

Both Sickles and Deeds said that budget conferees were finally meeting face-to-face, but Sickles said it would be “impossible” for lawmakers to reach an agreement Thursday.