The Virginia General Assembly passed measures on Feb. 26 that partially alleviate the deep funding cuts Virginia’s institutions of higher education suffered in fiscal year 2014, as well as allocating pay increases for college faculty, teachers and state employees.
In a nearly bi-partisan vote, the General Assembly agreed to roll back on the higher education cuts proposed by Gov. McAuliffe late last September. The new budget reduces the originally proposed $90 million in cuts to $42 million strictly aimed at higher education.
The budget also funds a 2 percent college faculty pay raise, a 1.5 percent teacher pay raise and another 2 percent raise for state police and employees.
When Gov. McAuliffe announced last year that he planned to bridge Virginia’s projected $2.4 million revenue gap by making a more than $90 million cut from the state’s higher education budget — student leaders organized.
Students of 13 Virginia colleges and universities affiliated with Virginia21, a generational bi-partisan political advocacy group, united to create the grassroots Save Our Slice Campaign. Several students from Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Virginia and James Madison University also sent a direct message to Gov. McAuliffe.
“You say higher education is an economic engine, but cutting funds drains gases from the tank. We know you’ve got to make more budget cuts soon. Make good on your campaign promises, keep colleges off the chopping block. Save our slice of the state budget,” the Virginia21 students said in a YouTube video they created urging Gov. McAuliffe not to cut funding for higher education.
In addition to the video, students also created a petition with similar demands that they posted to the Virginia21 website. At press time the petition had 1,759 signatures.
VCU senior and Virginia21’s Student Leadership Committee Co-Chair Charley Brown, said the Save Our Slice Campaign was not the only effort put forward by Virginia21 students.
According to Brown, the organization met with financial and appropriations committees from both the House and Senate in September and October after hearing about Gov. McAuliffe’s budget cut proposal. These meetings took place a few months before the General Assembly took session.
“Originally back in September the governor told all schools to cut around 10 percent, across the board, it ended up being in total around $90 million,” Brown said. “With the budget that was just passed, since they found out (about increased state revenue), they were actually able to roll back that cost. But it’s still an overall $45 million that is still required in cuts. So tuitions are still going to get hit pretty hard next year.”
“Now we face $8.75 million in cuts to the budget for the fiscal year that has already begun (fiscal year 2015), increasing to $12.25 million in cuts for fiscal year 2016,” said VCU president Michael Rao, in a message to the VCU community following Gov. McAuliffe’s announcement on the shortfall.
Gov. McAuliffe mandated on Aug. 27 that as a result of the shortfall, state institutions must shave off 5 percent of their budget this fiscal year, and 7 percent the following. This announcement came more than a month after the state budget was finalized three months late due to partisan conflict in the general assembly.
A report published in November 2014 by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commissions confirms that tuition rates for students increase when state funding is reduced.
In May 2014 the Board of Visitors at VCU approved a 3.5 percent tuition increase, averaging the cost for new VA undergrads living on campus with meal plans at $21,715.96. Likewise the average cost for new out-of-state undergraduate students with meal plans is $39,776.98.
In November, the students organized the Save Our Slice campaign which saw results in December when Gov. McAuliffe announced there would be no further cuts. Students also attended lobby day at the General Assembly in mid January, which allowed several Virginia21 students to voice their concerns to legislators.
“We applaud the work of the General Assembly this session to prioritize higher education in the budget,” said Virginia21 Executive Director, Tom Kramer, in response to the new budget. “They reversed deep cuts and prioritized keeping our colleges accessible, high-quality and affordable. Students organized a strong grassroots campaign calling for our leaders to focus on the real challenges of young Virginians, and we are glad they did.”
Although the General Assembly decided to alleviate the cuts proposed by Gov. McAuliffe and address the issue of raising tuition several times throughout the budget, students may face increases in tuition because not all of the funding needed was covered.