Va. Agency Backs Higher-ed Restructuring Measures

November 15, 2011

Virginia's higher-education agency is recommending that the state provide financial incentives for public colleges and universities to boost enrollment, and make it easier for students from middle-income families to qualify for tuition aid, under the state's new Higher Education Opportunity Act.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia on Monday recommended that four-year schools get $2,800 in the first year of the biennial budget and $3,000 in the second year for each in-state resident attending college for the first time, transfer students, and students who remain in college from the previous year.

For the Virginia Community College system and Richard Bland College, the council recommended amounts of $1,800 for the first year and $2,000 for the second year.

The council plans to forward its recommendations to Gov. Bob McDonnell and the General Assembly's money committees. The upcoming budget will be the first biennial spending plan initiated by McDonnell, who took office in January 2010.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act includes efforts to increase college enrollment, degree attainment and the pursuit of science, Technology and health-related fields. The act, the centerpiece of McDonnell's higher-education agenda, aims to help prepare Virginians for high-demand jobs and grow the state's Economy.

SCHEV also defined "low-income" as below 200 percent of the poverty level and "middle income" as 200 percent to 400 percent of the poverty level, for financial-aid purposes. For a family of four, for example, the poverty level is $22,350; for a family of six, it's $29,900. SCHEV officials say about 24 percent of students who currently receive financial aid have family incomes between $50,000 and $100,000.

The council previously recommended that the upcoming budget include $363.5 million for higher education, including an additional $54 million for undergraduate financial aid to help meet the growing percentage of students who need tuition assistance.

SCHEV also said Monday it backs a higher-education appropriations model that includes more state funding to cover the cost of education, enrollment growth and the targeted economic and innovation incentives.

Under the council's proposed model, in which higher ed base funding would be double that of incentive funding, the two-year budget would provide $80 million for the incentive fund. SCHEV recommends that the state establish one incentive funding pool to be available to all public colleges and universities.

Council members also showed support for a framework that the state's Higher Education Advisory Committee proposed on how Virginia would provide targeted economic and innovation incentives to colleges and universities. The committee is in the process of determining what objectives and goals should be used to measure performance and how to link that performance to financial incentives.

While SCHEV said it supports the goal of increasing STEM and health-related degrees, members stressed that such efforts shouldn't come at the expense of non-STEM-related fields of study. The council also recommended that there be a point system that recognizes increases in the number of degrees awarded, rather than just the number of degrees.

The council also said the state should also track "economic opportunity metrics," including salaries that graduates of certain degree programs earn one year and five years after they leave college. Such a system would provide information about how many students get their degrees, how many remain in Virginia, and what kind of careers they pursue.

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