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Is Virginia's College Tuition Freeze Sustainable?

VCU James Branch Cabell Library
In the last General Assembly session, lawmakers offered Virginia public universities additional funding in exchange for keeping tuition flat for at least one year. All the schools in the state agreed. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Over the last decade, college students have paid increasingly more to attend Virginia universities. But this fall, they won’t see an increase in tuition. State lawmakers approved a tuition freeze earlier this year for in-state undergrads. But is it sustainable? And will it really help curb the rising cost of college in the Commonwealth?

 Transcript:

As Virginia lawmakers left Richmond after this year’s General Assembly session in March, most Democrats and Republicans were happy about at least one thing: a tuition freeze for all undergrad students. Here’s Republican Delegate Dickie Bell:

Bell: I’m hopeful that we can make this a continuous thing. 

The state gave colleges the option to take a chunk of money, in exchange for keeping tuition flat, at least for one year. And they all took it. 

It’s been a campaign issue, too. House leaders like Chris Jones have recently paid for Facebook ads touting his role in getting the tuition freeze approved. House Speaker Kirk Cox publicly announced he plans to support another tuition freeze next year, too. 



But not all lawmakers agree the move is sustainable. Here’s Republican Delegate Todd Gilbert, speaking shortly after the tuition freeze deal was reached.

Gilbert: I worry that the sustained effort to pour money into the problem actually has the reverse effect. It actually may be increasing the costs.

Gilbert points out that the last time Virginia froze tuition nearly two decades ago, it didn’t stay frozen. In fact, two years later in 2002, tuition jumped over 20%. 

Kang: With this graph, we were trying to really show the relationship between the increases in tuition and fees and often correlated with the declines in state funding.


Annual Increases of State Appropriations to E&G Programs and In-State Undergraduate Tuition
The light blue line shows tuition increases and decreases, the dark blue line shows state funding increases and decreases. (Graphic courtesy of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia)


Wendy Kang points to a chart of the dramatic peaks and valleys that show the almost inverse relationship between state funding, and tuition. She’s the finance policy director for Virginia’s council on higher education.

Kang: When the state is reducing funding, it's often providing more flexibility to the institutions to make up the difference of their costs. 

In other words, when state funding is cut -- especially during a recession -- universities have to figure out how to make up the difference. That often comes in the form of a tuition hike.  When the economy improves, state funding for colleges often goes up, and tuition drops or stays flat.

Kang: And these cycles just continue.

Stacie Gordon is with the new national nonprofit Partners for College Affordability. She’s based in Richmond, and advocated for the tuition freeze this year. 

Gordon: Obviously the end result was exactly what we wanted.



Gordon says tuition was really out of control, increasing by 80% over the past 10 years. And the share of university costs that students have shouldered has more than doubled since 2001. 

Gordon: There comes to a point where you have to have some sort of restraint.

According to her group, 14 states had some sort of tuition freeze or cap last year. But, even Gordon says Virginia’s tuition freeze is not a long-term solution. She’d like to see greater predictability in higher ed funding, not only from the state but from the universities themselves. Experts like Justin Brown say one thing universities should be keeping an eye on: new construction spending.

Brown: The prioritization of capital spending in terms of what's an essential thing to build now and maybe what is a nice-to-have. 

Brown is with Virginia’s legislative watchdog group, JLARC. The agency found that public four-year Virginia universities spent more than twice the national average on campus construction projects from 1993 to 2013. Brown says universities have since made some progress and saved money by implementing some of the report’s recommendations. But he says there’s still more work to be done, especially when it comes to capital spending. 

For Learning Curve, I’m Megan Pauly, VPM News.