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As students struggle with cost of living, VCU votes to increase tuition

People walking with backpacks
Students walk through VCU's Monroe Park Campus. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia Commonwealth University’s board of visitors last week voted to increase tuition by 3% for the upcoming school year starting this fall. 

Prior to the vote, several students voiced their opposition to the tuition hike in person, and a VCU board member said several hundred students expressed their objection to the tuition increase through a written comment process.

VCU did not make these comments available upon request and is treating VPM News’ request for the materials as a public records request through the Freedom of Information Act. Meanwhile, some other public universities like The University of Virginia, Christopher Newport University and Virginia Tech made comments about tuition publicly available online.

One VCU student said she’s working three jobs to pay for school and is still struggling with food insecurity. Another named Jaime, a first-generation college student and VCU employee, said they’re working two jobs to make ends meet. VPM News is not using their full name to protect their identity, since they work on campus and fear retaliation for speaking out.

Jaime, a rising senior, struggled to pay her off-campus rent when she got COVID-19 earlier this year and had to miss two weeks of work. VCU’s tuition increase likely will make Jaime’s financial situation more precarious. 

“I will have to take out more loans and be in more debt,” they said.

Jaime’s university meal plan is ending soon, and they’re worried about food insecurity during the summer. They said VCU’s Ram Pantry limits the number of items students can take; she has applied for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and is awaiting a response.

According to data from the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia, about 12,000 Virginia college students received support from SNAP during the 2019-20 school year. SCHEV also estimated that a quarter of all Virginia college students are potentially eligible for SNAP benefits. Students with children can also access cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program following a 2021 law.

Board members and students put pressure on VCU officials during the May 13 board meeting to do more to support students. Board member Dr. Gopinath Jadhav said the university needs to take the necessary steps now, not later.

“[Students] need help today, not some other time … when they’re starving today,” Jadhav said. “Whatever way we need to tighten the belt or cut the cost of pay raises for the administration — whatever it may be — I think we need to be looking and exploring all the options.”

Chuck Klink, VCU’s chief student affairs officer, told the board last week that “I think we could do more in that area [food pantry services.]”

According to a statement from VCU, the tuition increase “is necessary to cover VCU’s share of anticipated salary increases for faculty, staff and adjuncts; to increase student support; and to address the higher costs of maintenance and utilities.” 

The news release said the proposed budget anticipates a 5% average merit pool increase for faculty and staff as well as adjunct faculty.

Jaime said, “that responsibility [for staff raises] should not be on the students.”

The VCU board will meet again in late June to finalize the budget, after they know how much money they’ll receive from the state. It’s unclear if the tuition hike will be revisited next month; Virginia lawmakers haven’t finalized a state budget.

The House of Delegates isn’t supporting a tuition freeze this year, unlike in previous years. That’s bad news, according to college affordability advocates like Stacie Gordon, who’s served as policy director for Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust for four years.

A budget amendment from Del. David Reid (D-Loudoun) would allocate $110 million over the next two fiscal years as an incentive for colleges to freeze both in-state tuition and mandatory fees. But Gordon notes that while the draft House budget allocates more than double the amount Reid proposed, it also allows universities to raise tuition up to 3% and still receive these new monies.

“The state had a [budget] surplus this year. It would have been nice if they wanted to make sure they were prioritizing affordability and accessibility in higher education by freezing tuition completely,” Gordon said. “Because even a 3% increase still could be a significant burden for some families and students. It could be the difference between attending college this year or holding off another year.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has also urged colleges to continue freezing tuition, which Gordon noted in a statement.

“Governor Youngkin had the right idea when he said, 'You can grow universities without growing tuition.' Coming out of a pandemic, students and families should not have to spend more for the same education, especially if universities receive a substantial boost in state support,” Gordon said.

VCU isn’t the only Virginia public university to approve a tuition hike for students. For example, VMI and GMU are also planning to increase tuition by 3%, while UVA voted to raise in-state tuition by 4.7% for the next school year.

According to a spokesperson for UVA, the university has no plans to reconsider its vote to set tuition rates.

Meanwhile, Norfolk State University’s finance committee recommended a tuition freeze for the fall. However, a spokesperson for the university said the tuition rate has not been finalized yet.

“The school board usually backs the finance committee’s proposal,” Gordon said from her experience monitoring university meetings. “I can’t think of a time where they hadn’t. But anything could happen.”  

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.