Student Council and the Young Democratic Socialists of America at U.Va. launched campaigns this month to push for a tuition freeze for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, citing financial issues caused by the pandemic.
The increase comes a year after the University’s historic decision to freeze tuition for the 2019-20 year — the General Assembly that year had distributed $52.5 million to incentivize the freeze among public universities. William and Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Virginia Tech all chose to continue the freeze for this year as well.
According to Wes Hester, deputy spokesperson and director of media relations at the University, the Board will wait until March to discuss tuition and fees for the next academic year. A public comment session will be held with students before the meeting.
“University officials have already begun to meet with members of the Student Tuition Committee and the Student Fee Committee and student feedback will be solicited and factored into possible tuition scenarios for the Board’s consideration,” Hester said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.
However, last March the Board approved the upper division tuition increase, which is still set to go in effect starting from the 2021-22 academic year. The University will increase tuition costs for rising third years next year by $2,700, and will apply to all third and fourth years for subsequent years. The University is expected to gain an extra $12 million annually from the new policy. The funding is expected to go towards increased instruction costs for upper division students, improving STEM labs and adding new courses.
Student Council released a survey Nov. 5 asking students to provide information on how their financial situation has been affected by the pandemic. Student Council’s new Data Science Committee leads the effort on this project by request of Chair of the Representative Body Abel Liu, with additional collaboration with YDSA.
From his work with the Mutual Aid Fund, Liu has heard hundreds of requests for aid from students who have reported monetary issues like job loss and income loss.
Another factor that informed his decision to push for a tuition freeze was the results from a Student Council survey from the beginning of the semester on the impact of COVID on students. Approximately 13 percent of 2,000 respondents said they had extreme financial insecurity, and Liu expects that the percentage has increased since.
In response to administrative concerns over decreasing class sizes and increasing faculty, Liu counters that enrollment for this academic year has remained constant, and that the University has hundreds of millions of dollars annually from unrestricted revenue to access.
“A lot of U.Va. students simply can’t afford a tuition increase, and I’d argue that any increase would be unfair given the relative quality of online learning,” Liu said.
Krit Chanwong, co-director of the Data Science Committee and third-year College student, agrees with Liu. On that note, he’s asking for more minority and first generation low-income students to complete the survey. Those groups, he says, would be disproportionately affected by a tuition increase, so their input would be invaluable to share with administrative officials.
Student Council aims to receive 1,000 responses by Nov. 20, when the survey is slated to close. Findings from the survey will be used to inform a follow-up meeting between Liu and Vice President for Finance Melody Bianchetto about the freeze, according to Meghan Gerety, co-director of the Data Science Committee and second-year College student. Ultimately, Student Council hopes to persuade the University to freeze tuition for all students for the next two academic years.
“The more samples we have, the more accurate a picture we have of the effects of COVID on the entire university population,” Chanwong said in a written statement.
Ella Tynch, second-year College student and YDSA member, agrees that a representative sample of the University population will further their cause.
“Having data proves what we already know but it's really helpful when advocating to U.Va. administration about anything,” Tynch said.
As of Nov. 22, the survey has 236 respondents. Preliminary results show that in terms of ethnic minority and first generation students, the Student Council survey has better representation than the University. 12.7 percent of respondents are Black, and 9.7 percent are Hispanic or Latinx, compared to 6.61 percent and 6.62 percent based on 2019 undergraduate numbers, respectively. 27.5 percent of respondents are first generation, almost twice that of the 13 percent first generation makeup among this semester’s enrolled undergraduate students. Chanwong hopes, however, to increase responses from low income students. 53 percent of respondents estimated a family income of less than $100,000 per year. The median income at the University is $155,000.
73.7 percent of respondents said their family anticipates or may anticipate difficulties paying tuition for the 2021-22 school year. 64 percent said that the pandemic forced them to significantly change spending in important areas of their lives. In follow up responses, many respondents reported food insecurity.
YDSA, with a similar goal, currently runs a letter writing campaign to ask administrative officials to freeze undergraduate tuition for the next two years, citing long-term economic impacts from the pandemic. The tuition freeze campaign is part of their overarching Student and Worker’s Response to the COVID pandemic, which lists demands ensuring health, security, and equal opportunity for University students and workers.
“What was once common-sense — that U.Va. raises tuition no matter what — is being challenged,” the YDSA Central Committee said in a written statement. “We’re demanding a tuition freeze because U.Va. is our university as much, if not more so, than it is the Board of Visitors University.”
Tynch emphasizes the negative impact a tuition increase would have on students including herself.
“I honestly don’t know how I’m going to pay for college,” she said. “I’m going to have to end up having to take more hours away from my schoolwork to work at a job, to try to afford rent, to try to afford groceries and to try to afford tuition.”
YDSA ran a survey in June, in which 147 out of 236 respondents said they were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about the cost of tuition increasing. 122 respondents said they were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about losing their job as a result of the pandemic.
The campaign, run through Action Network, streamlines the process of writing and sending letters to officials with say in tuition changes — primarily Board members. YDSA also held a socially distanced in-person letter writing event on the Lawn on Nov. 14
Through their campaign, YDSA sent a steady stream of letters every day. As of Nov. 23, over 50 letters have been sent, well exceeding their goal of 25.
“I think this year we've got a really good chance of actually achieving that tuition freeze,” Tynch said. “We've got a really energetic membership despite the pandemic — people are being really engaged, people are excited, and people know that this is a necessity, not a want.”
Tynch noted the demonstrated support for the freeze this year is not unprecedented. A YDSA and Student Council initiative on the credit/no credit grading system last semester contributed to effective action by the University. The cooperative system between the two organizations, with YDSA rallying student support and Student Council spearheading dialogue with the University, proved to be an effective model to follow again.
“It wasn't everything that we would have liked — people did have to choose before seeing their final grades, but it was a success, and we're seeing that success continue for January,” she said. “It is really important to have this mobilized membership.”
YDSA also ran a tuition freeze campaign last year. The organization collected 400 signatures and 5,000 emails were mass sent to Board of Visitors members with provided or personalized letters. Although officials were largely unresponsive, YDSA’s renewed efforts with student testimonial letters is expected to produce improved results.
“It may seem like you're just sending it into the void but you're not — these letters are being read,” Tynch said. “You can share your story, which is honestly one of the most effective ways of organizing.”
Student Council foresees the advocacy continuing next semester depending on the conditions of the released tuition proposal, and encourages all students to fill out their survey.
“Depending on what happens over break, we may need a big push from the student body going into next semester,” Gerety said in a written statement. “Let’s push TOGETHER for this well needed tuition freeze!”