With next fiscal year’s operating budget still uncertain, members of the University community expressed concerns over a proposed undergraduate tuition increase at a Board of Visitors public comment session Wednesday. The proposed hike is estimated to fall between 0 to 3.1 percent. Before approving any increases in tuition or mandatory fees, the Board of Visitors is required to hold a public comment period in accordance with BOV-019.
Board of Visitors Rector James B. Murray, Provost Liz Magill and Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis opened the meeting with an explanation of the University’s current financial situation and tuition philosophy before allowing administrators from the University of Virginia College at Wise to do the same.
Magill described the University’s tuition philosophy as one that prioritizes affordability and accessibility while maintaining high quality. The University looks to other sources of funding first, such as federal relief, hiring and compensation freezes and departmental budget reductions — tuition increases are a last resort to handle rising costs.
However, there have been many increasing costs associated with the pandemic. During the current fiscal year 2021, there have been $142 million of costs and lost revenue, with $55 million allocated towards remote instruction, testing, quarantine and isolation, personal protective equipment and other COVID-19-related expenses. Davis mentioned that additional COVID-related costs are anticipated during the fiscal year 2022.
Part of this is because the University’s revenue model has been inhibited by the pandemic.
“Providing online classes has been costly, but probably most costly to the University has been we have lost a lot of revenue,” Murray said. “We don’t have housing revenue, dining revenue, athletics, student and public services. There are many areas of the University that usually support our working enterprise that are not available to the University now under these conditions.”
Beyond COVID-related expenses, the General Assembly is also considering either a 3.0 percent or 3.5 percent merit increase for faculty and staff, which would amount to additional costs of $33.1 million or $38.6 million, respectively. Last year, faculty and staff already faced a hiring freeze and, in some cases, pay cuts. Utility prices across the University are also increasing by an average of 5.7 percent this coming year.
Individuals who wished to speak at the meeting were required to email the Board of Visitors beforehand. During the public comment portion of the meeting, 16 undergraduate students and one alumnus spoke in opposition to a tuition increase.
Many of them, like fourth-year College student Levi Schult, shared personal stories about the impact of the pandemic and recession on their lives.
“I have friends who are doing anything for funds at this time,” Schult said. “I see the people I love quite literally putting their lives on the line such that they can continue being a student at this institution. The Board of Visitors and the University of Virginia administration may not see the pain inflicted by this tuition raise, but this does not mean it won’t be felt among those already most marginalized and in need.”
In 2019, the Board of Visitors voted to increase undergraduate tuition by 3.6 percent for the 2020-2021 academic year, which meant an annual increase of between $510 and $880 for in-state students and an increase of between $1,710 and $2,094 for out-of-state students.
During the 2019-2020 academic year, a $5.52 million increase in funding from the state allowed the University to freeze tuition for in-state undergraduate students, offsetting the 2.9 percent in-state tuition increase that was initially planned. This saved in-state students around $400, but out-of-state students still faced a 3.5 percent tuition increase.
Some speakers from Student Council’s Legislative Affairs Committee shared data from a survey about pandemic-induced student financial hardship. According to their results, 42 percent of students reported that they are struggling to pay tuition this year and 69 percent fear they will struggle to do so next year.
“Over the fall semester, many of us felt that the University valued revenue streams above the wellbeing of its students, especially students of color,” said Hannah Koizumi, chair of the Legislative Affairs Committee and fourth-year Batten student. “Greek Life rush was allowed to happen in person, putting all of us in danger. Many of us are losing federal work study jobs as a result of the shutdown that’s being put in place as of yesterday.”
The University reached new records of COVID-19 cases Monday and Tuesday, causing the University to ban all in-person gatherings and urge students to remain in their residences except for essential activities. According to tweets from a couple students, this shutdown has impacted some work study jobs as access to Grounds has been restricted. Although Deputy University Spokesperson Wes Hester previously said that no connection between the recent case increase and Greek life recruitment had been identified, many students continue to blame the rise in cases on in-person Greek life recruitment events.
The Board of Visitors’ proposed 0 to 3.1 percent tuition hike comes at a time when some peer institutions have undergone tuition freezes due to the pandemic. In May, after the start of the pandemic, the College of William and Mary reversed their Fall 2020 tuition increase plan and instead kept tuition flat. The Board of Visitors at Virginia Tech also approved a tuition freeze in June. Several student speakers, including third-year College student Madeleine Poché, questioned why the University could not make the same commitment.
“I understand that it costs money to implement additional safety precautions to keep us protected from coronavirus and to continue to provide the quality of education to which U.Va. is committed,” Poché said. “That being said, most of the other major schools in Virginia, including Virginia Tech, William & Mary and [James Madison University], have frozen tuition as a result of the pandemic. If these other universities can do it, why can’t U.Va.?”
While these peer institutions froze tuition during the 2020-2021 academic year, they have not yet made a formal decision about tuition for the next academic year.
With the bulk of courses virtual again this spring — only 27 percent offer an in-person component — third-year Engineering student Hania Aboud felt that a tuition increase was uniquely out of place because the quality of education at the University has suffered online.
“I did not sign up for an online education,” Aboud said. “I was hoping to get in-person lab experience, grow my critical thinking through hands-on learning and become a well-rounded technical engineer. I am not able to access the thousands of dollars of resources I’m paying for due to this pandemic and COVID restrictions.”
The University’s budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year will not be finalized until the General Assembly and Governor’s office first settle on the state budget. Actions taken by the legislature may impact whether or not a tuition increase is warranted. Murray mentioned that if the legislature mandates increased spending on faculty and staff salaries, for example, a tuition increase may also be required.
In his closing remarks, Murray thanked students for their participation and lauded the administration for its response to shifting financial circumstances.
“The Board is aware of the hardships your families face, and we are doing all we can to manage the cost of U.Va.,” Murray said. “[Davis] and her team have been able to hold the line to recover a lot of these COVID losses ... Right now, the Board can do no more than to urge the legislature and the Governor not to require that we spend more money unless they simultaneously send us some dollars to cover those expenditures.”
The Board of Visitors will reconvene on March 5 to make a final decision on the operating budget and tuition for the 2021-2022 academic year.