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As Budget Decisions Loom, Uncertainty Reigns In Higher Ed

VSU sign
New funding for Virginia universities has been put on hold as the spread of coronavirus causes uncertainty. (Photo: Kevin Coles/CC 2.0)

*Patrick Larsen reported this story

Schools, advocates and politicians called Virginia’s 2020 higher education budget ‘historic’ when it was adopted earlier this year. However, almost all of the new funding was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

And in addition to economic uncertainty, schools also grappled with the question of going online or in-person this fall, as COVID-19 still looms.

In late August, President Makola Abdullah of Virginia State University announced that the school would cancel its face-to-face learning plan in favor of an online option. In the letter, Abdullah cited outbreaks at universities around the country and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in Black communities.

“The question wasn’t could we open,” Abdullah said in an interview with VPM. “The question just was for Virginia State, as an institution in our community, should we?”

He said the decision only makes things more uncertain for the university. It already offered a partial refund on housing to students when classes transitioned online last semester, and spent heavily on its plan to reopen in person. Abdullah understands that some students will probably disenroll, although he doesn’t know how many.

Peter Blake, director of the State Council on Higher Education for Virginia, said those factors and countless others have put a serious dent in schools’ balance sheets.

“The CARES Act - the federal relief act - provides some funding to both colleges and to students to help offset some of those costs, but not to the extent that they incurred them,” Blake said.

Blake and Abdullah agree that colleges and universities will have to look to the General Assembly to appropriate some aid dollars. That could be complicated.

Colleges and universities were budgeted $389 million in new funding this year, covering financial aid, tuition freezes and more. Lawmakers touted what they called a focus on equity, pointing to programs directed at low-income students, the community college system, and historically Black colleges and universities, including VSU.

“It was really incredible. We were and still are really thankful to the governor and to the General Assembly for their support,” Abdullah said.

But almost all of the new higher education funding agreed upon this year was unallotted, or temporarily removed, from the state budget when the coronavirus pandemic struck. There’s no guarantee that the funding will be restored to education now that Virginia faces a $2.7 billion revenue shortfall compared to a December 2019 estimate.

Lawmakers are assessing the state’s own funding issues with COVID-19 costs and losses, and some seem hesitant to restore education funding before there’s more information available.

“We need to look at higher education as a corporate body and be very careful about singling out any individual public college or university to get add-on money for any reason, unless we have some empirical data to support it,” Sen. Tommy Norment (R-James City) said in a Finance and Appropriations Committee meeting last week.

Schools around the state are communicating with lawmakers, but Abdullah said it’s hard to have a clear outlook right now. He said it might be more clear in a couple of weeks or even a month, but there’s no guarantee the special session will still be going on by then.

Blake said it’s possible that lawmakers will wait until January to make decisions on some of the big spending commitments that were cut.

There are some proposed budget amendments that would start to restore those programs. Del. Martha Mugler (D-Hampton) introduced one that would restore some funding to Gov. Ralph Northam’s G-3 plan, which would offer support to community college students who qualify for Federal Pell Grants.

VSU still has some new funding in the budget; it was among the only new cash for education left untouched. Abdullah hopes that when lawmakers do decide where to send the money, they take the same attention to equity.

“We believe that if that’s the case, that Virginia State will do as well as it can in these very challenging times,” Abdullah said.

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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