For the last few days of the 2020 General Assembly session, college tuition freezes were a sticking point for House and Senate budget negotiators. Such a sticking point, in fact, that legislators extended their deadline for reaching a deal.
But a last-minute compromise appeared to offer the best of both worlds for legislators from both chambers. The Senate added roughly $60 million over the next two years for need-based financial aid at Virginia’s publicly funded colleges and universities. And the House added roughly $79.7 million for in-state tuition freezes, something its Higher Education Subcommittee — paraphrasing a quote from Winston Churchill — described as a “tremendous whack” at the problem of college affordability.
“Students and parents across the Commonwealth can breathe a sigh of relief now that the General Assembly has struck a deal that will freeze tuition for the second year in a row,” said Stacie Gordon, advocacy manager for Partners for College Affordability, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that pushes for more affordable college education around the country. “Virginia’s legislators have made it absolutely clear that holding down college costs for hard-working students and their families remains a top priority.”
Much of the debate boiled down to a fundamental disagreement over the merits of another tuition freeze. Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax — a 29-year-old dentist who estimates he still has around $560,000 in student debt — said the House was committed to a solution that would keep colleges more affordable for all Virginia students.
But in their subcommittee report, Senate legislators wrote that across-the-board tuition freezes would “simply perpetuate the past.” Financial aid, including tuition grants for students at private colleges, is a more effective way to leverage state funds for college affordability, they argued.
The House proposal will offer individual colleges optional funding in exchange for freezing tuition at 2020 levels, while the Senate will offer each school more money for need-based aid, regardless of tuition prices.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.