Last year, students and staff at Virginia Commonwealth University rallied for better pay for adjunct professors. They also questioned why the university chose to purchase another building while continuing to raise tuition.
The crowd of about a dozen protesters chanted "Our school, our tuition, our voice."
The university eventually agreed to raise adjunct pay, but it did so, in part, by raising tuition again. In-state, undergrad students are now having to pay $800 more than the year before.
The Virginia legislature has now approved a bill that will force universities to create an official process for public comment the next time they want to raise tuition. The bill, sponsored by Senator Chap Petersen and Delegate Jason Miyares, is expected to head to the Governor’s desk soon.
Petersen said the idea behind the proposal is to put pressure on universities to justify their fee increases and hopefully keeping costs low in the process. He also wants to ensure students to take on a bigger role in deciding the direction of their university.
“We’re trying to teach young people to be active, to be involved, to have opinions," Petersen said. "If they're going to have to come out of pocket for an extra thousand or two thousand dollars, they ought to be part of that conversation. It’s their money.”
Even without a public comment period, students have been making their voices heard, usually by disrupting Board of Visitors meetings. The Board of Visitors at each university is appointed by the governor and votes on tuition increase requests. They look at things like state funding levels and cash reserves when making their decision.
Bob Holsworth is a former professor at VCU and has been a member of the school's board for more seven years. Currently, he said the board lives in a bubble, only receiving information and input from administrators.
“So what Chap Petersen's bill does is that it reminds board members that we’re simply not there only for the purpose of advancing the university, but we’re also there to think about students and the needs of the commonwealth as well," Holsworth said.
But it remains to be seen whether or not giving students a voice in the process will pump the brakes on Virginia’s steady increase in tuition rates.
Over the last two decades, the average annual cost of college for in-state students has doubled, making Virginia the state with the sixth highest tuition rate in the country.
Peter Blake, executive director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said the cost of college has been rapidly increasing across the county.
“Since the recession, tuition in Virginia has accelerated," he said. "That’s a pretty common occurrence across the nation, where you have had less investment by the commonwealth and, to make up those differences, institutions across the nation have increased tuition.”
Blake said higher education has also become a more competitive industry in recent years. As a result, universities are spending more money on staffing new academic programs and building state-of-the-art facilities.
While that helps in marketing to prospective students, it can also make current students feel like the university is out of touch with the burden that tuition increases create.
VCU student Nicholas Da Silva has told board members just that. He’s the founder of the VCU chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America and one of the few students who regularly show up to board meetings.
“I know with the last tuition hike, I had friends that had to stop going to school," he said. "I had people who had to take time off, reduce their credits or flat out drop out for a temporary period.”
Da Silva wants universities to consider those student voices the next time they think about raising tuition.