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Virginia public colleges freeze tuition for coming school year

The College of William and Mary is among the state schools in Virginia freezing tuition. (iStock)

Tuition will remain flat at Virginia’s public colleges for the coming school year, the first such tuition freeze in nearly two decades.

The move, made possible by increased state funding, comes as the expense of a college education, and the crippling debt students take on, has emerged as a national issue.

“It’s a really significant victory for students and families in Virginia,” said James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust. And not just because of the money families will save, he said: It also reshapes the conversation about college affordability in the state.

“While free-college proposals have dominated the headlines, many state legislatures across the country have quietly gone back to the business of restoring state funding levels” that had been cut after the Great Recession, Toscano said. As state revenue has recovered, investment in higher education is again being considered, he said. But lawmakers are realizing that increased funding should come with protections for consumers, Toscano said.

Several states have recently passed funding increases tied to caps on tuition, he said, a sign that states recognize their responsibility for funding public institutions — and that they recognize consumers “have reached a pain point that is greater than they can bear.”

The Virginia General Assembly will provide nearly $53 million in additional money aimed at making a college education more affordable.

Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that after years of hearing from students and parents, he thought legislators should send a message “that we understand their plight.”

With that additional money from lawmakers in mind, the governing boards of all 15 public universities in Virginia this spring voted to hold tuition steady for in-state undergraduate students.

In some cases, including at the University of Virginia, the increased funding allowed the board of visitors to roll back a planned 2.9 percent increase. In April, school leaders were able to vote to maintain the 2018-2019 tuition rate for in-state undergraduate students.

Some schools also froze tuition for out-of-state students.

In Virginia, students shouldered more than half of the burden of tuition costs in 2018-2019, despite efforts for many years to make the state cover at least two-thirds of the cost. “We haven’t met that in a very long time,” said Laura B. Osberger, a spokeswoman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. The last tuition freeze for all in-state undergraduates was in the 2001-2002 academic year.

Many people are hoping the funding will continue, Osberger said, “but we don’t know what will happen with the economy, and we don’t know what will happen with the legislature.”

Jones said: “I would like to be able to come back this next year and do something similar, if possible.”