The board of visitors at Virginia Commonwealth University voted unanimously Friday to increase the cost of tuition 3% next fall, hoping to minimize job cuts and not water down the value of education.
Their decision came despite requests by hundreds of students who wrote messages asking the university to keep costs flat. One student said she works three jobs and struggles to eat more than one meal per day. And it comes despite Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s request this week that colleges not raise prices.
President Michael Rao said that the university had not increased the cost, it would have been forced to cut at least 350 jobs, increase class sizes and possibly remove classes.
Even with a 3% increase, the university expects to face a budget deficit of at least $15 million because of all the new expenses looming next fall, including a 5% mandated salary increase, more financial aid and inflation-related maintenance.
“How do we pay for it?” asked board member Pamela El. “How do we keep the quality of education going year after year with no increase?”
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Though the board was reluctant to raise costs, said Stuart Siegel, another board member, ultimately it had “no other choice.”
In addition to raising tuition, VCU brought up its fees about 5%. Now, in-state undergraduates will pay roughly $15,600 per year for tuition and fees before scholarships and grants. The increase represents a $524 hike on the cost of education. Out-of-state students will spend $37,600 per year.
Room and board will go up, too. That cost will increase 5% to roughly $12,000 annually. Altogether, in-state students will pay close to $28,000 annually in tuition, fees, room and board. The cost to attend VCU has swelled 50% in the past 10 years.
Along with the tuition proposal, VCU’s board approved a $1.5 billion budget for 2022-23. VCU has roughly 29,000 students and 25,000 employees between the university and its health system.
But the extra revenue from tuition won’t be enough to cover all the new costs coming VCU’s way. The university expects to face $54 million in new expenses — about half comes from a state-mandated 5% salary increase for employees. Plus energy costs have gone up, maintenance costs are more expensive, and new debt needs to be paid down.
VCU hasn’t raised tuition in the past three years.
Because of those costs, VCU expects a budget deficit of between $15 million and $23 million next year, depending on how much funding the university receives from the state. The administration will review each school in the university when choosing where to make cuts.
Had VCU not raised tuition, it would have faced a budget shortfall of at least $25 million, said Chief Financial Officer Karol Kain Gray. With a hole that big, VCU may have had to cut services for students, such as counseling and mental health, which it intends to expand, Rao said.
Some members of the board worried that keeping costs flat would devalue the education VCU provides. Board member Keith Parker said it’s like charging the same price for a bag of chips but putting fewer chips in the bag.
More than 600 students and community members sent messages to the board asking it not to raise tuition.
Kamari Branch, 19, a rising junior from Richmond, works three jobs to pay for college. She’s a merchandiser in the garden section at Lowe’s, a computer lab monitor at the Pollak Building and a photo booth operator for parties on weekends.
She spoke at Friday’s meeting and asked the board not to raise costs.
“Higher education is supposed to be accessible to all, right?” she said.
Thanks to scholarships, Branch paid a discounted $3,500 for school, room and board last semester. But her costs have gone up every year. She’s scared to take out loans and bury herself in debt, but she’s received $6,000 in loans anyway.
Branch says she struggles to eat more than one meal a day. She gets two meals a week from her dining plan, visits Panda Express or Avo Kitchen and regularly picks up groceries from VCU’s food pantry. She knows to visit early in the week before the stock runs low.
“We see you. We acknowledge you. We hear you,” Vice Rector Carolina Espinal said in response to the students. The board discussed tuition for two hours before casting a vote.
Board member Dr. Gopinath Jadhav suggested administrators make a gesture to students, such as cutting their own pay raises.
“Our students are hurting,” Jadhav said. “They need to see we are working for them in their favor.”
Board member Peter Farrell said he could endorse a cost hike only if VCU increased its advising services for students. Not enough professors take the responsibility of advising students seriously, he said.
“My God, the number of students I heard say, ‘I had to figure it out myself’ is bad,” Farrell said. “I hate to say that. It’s bad. … If it does not get better, I will not follow any of this anymore.”
Farrell also suggested VCU considered removing money from its health system’s quasi endowment, valued at more than $1 billion.
But Dr. Art Kellermann, CEO of VCU Health, said the system needs to keep a certain amount of money in its endowment to preserve its bond rating and pay lower interest.
One day, Rao hopes VCU can offer free tuition to all low-income students the way the University of Virginia does. Currently, VCU has such a large percentage of low-income students, it can’t afford to, he said.
“It’s a long-term vision, but it’s an important vision,” Rao said.