Our view: Grants key to education access

The roving legislative spotlight landed on Virginia’s private colleges recently when Sen.┬áThomas Norment, R-James City County, proposed a study of tuition assistance grants.

A study of the program is reasonable to ensure that it is meeting its goals, but lawmakers should make sure they understand what those goals are before inadvertently causing harm.

The grants, paid by state taxpayers, currently provide full-time Virginia students attending one of the state’s private institutions with $3,100 per academic year.

Norment has raised concerns that more than a quarter of recipients are from households with an annual income exceeding $100,000.

Needs-based eligibility rules are appropriate for financial aid, but legislators must remember that the grants serve a larger purpose.

Created in the 1970s at the behest of the late state Sen. Williams Hopkins Sr. of Roanoke, the grants have never been subject to a means test. Their primary function is to give Virginians greater access to a college education in the most cost-efficient manner possible.

The grants are still a bargain compared to the taxpayer-funded subsidies for in-state undergraduates attending public institutions. The average subsidy this year for public four-year colleges and universities is $6,200, double the TAG amount, according to data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

In his budget proposal, Gov. Bob McDonnell included $182 million in new funding for higher education, including money to raise TAGs to $3,300 annually. That follows a tradition of raising and lowering the grants in synch with fluctuations in state spending on public institutions.

House leaders support McDonnell’s proposal, while senators have held the grants at $3,100.

One issue that’s likely attracting legislative attention is the growing participation of Liberty University. More than 5,000 Liberty students collected the grants last year, according to the most recent SCHEV data, at a total cost of $12.4┬ámillion. No other institution comes close.

Overall, 21,600 students received grants totaling $55.6 million in 2012-13. That included 1,011 students from Roanoke College at $2.7 million, 723 from Jefferson College of Health Sciences at $1.6 million, and 304 from Hollins University at $793,800. The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine received a modest sum of $52,000 for 41 students eligible for grants through a related initiative aimed at encouraging graduate-level health care degrees.

A final decision on the amount of the tuition assistance grants will be determined once a new state budget is approved. The legislature failed to agree on a budget by its Saturday deadline and is expected to reconvene later this month.

If a study is forthcoming, the grants must be measured based on a fair assessment of their several functions.

Virginia’s private colleges have been enthusiastic partners in the effort to build a vibrant higher education system that guarantees future generations have the skills and knowledge necessary for a prosperous economy. It’s a partnership that should be preserved.

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