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UVa student Ahmad Brown speaks out against tuition increases during a public meeting with University of Virginia Board of Visitors last year.

Virginia bucked a two-decade trend of rising tuition costs when public colleges agreed to freeze rates last year in exchange for state funds.

Lawmakers are flirting with the idea they’ll make that offer again.

“I think it was very effective last year,” said Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun . “There’s a general recognition that the cost of college tuition is going up at a much faster pace than inflation, and we have to make a concerted effort to get that under control.”

Reid and Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin County, have each proposed the General Assembly set aside around $53 million over two years to offset increases.

“I’m feeling really optimistic about a tuition freeze this year,” said James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a nonpartisan advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “When you look at the fact that both members of the House Democrats and House Republicans have filed budget amendments to freeze tuition, I think there is a strong likelihood that the House budget will include a tuition freeze.”

A spokeswoman for Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, chairman of the influential House Appropriations Committee, said Torian supports Reid’s amendment.

Still, getting a tuition freeze through the Senate and across the governor’s desk may be another matter. As of Tuesday, no Senate budget amendments mention a freeze.

In 2019, the General Assembly approved $52.5 million over one year to control costs. Governing boards at every public college agreed not to raise tuition and mandatory fees, though some did increase other fees.

Peter Blake, director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said last year’s freeze was coupled with salary increases from a separate pool of state funding, which factored into universities’ decision not to raise rates.

Thus, the final budget included tens of millions more.

In its November budget recommendations, SCHEV didn’t weigh in on a freeze. The agency proposed $50.3 million be given over two years to keep tuition low, and suggested an increase of $45 million in financial aid, among other policies.

“There’s a range of ways that one can approach affordability,” Blake said. “Certainly freezing tuition is one strategy, but I would suggest it’s not the only one.”

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, the House minority leader, has cast last year’s freeze as a Republican-led boon to young people.

Gilbert has called out Gov. Ralph Northam for not including a tuition freeze in his proposed budget, which puts free community college for low- and middle-income students at the center of its higher education earmarks.

This year, Gilbert proposed in a budget amendment that the General Assembly greenlight $170 million over two years for a tuition freeze.

Republicans and Democrats understand, Toscano said, that controlling the rising cost of college is popular with voters.

“With all the money that’s going to higher education, who wants to be the political party that votes against a tuition freeze and then has to defend that to their constituents?” he said.

Already, some universities have raised tuition for the academic year beginning the fall of 2020. In December, the University of Virginia approved a 3.6% tuition increase.

Reid’s budget amendment says if a university forgoes the funds, it will be reallocated to the colleges that do accept the money. It’s not clear whether colleges such as UVa would rescind planned increases and opt for the state freeze funds.

A Virginia Tech spokesman said the university supports “efforts to provide adequate state funding to keep tuition low,” and would follow legislative discussions on a potential freeze. Radford University’s president said in a statement that the university “welcomes the opportunity to participate in the Tuition Moderation Fund if provided by the General Assembly for the upcoming academic year.”

Reid acknowledged there are many competing interests in the state budget, but believes lawmakers could agree on a freeze, whatever the eventual million-dollar figure of support.

“Is 52 the right number? Is 80 the right number? Do we come to some middle ground?” Reid said. “The way it looks now it could be significantly different from how it works out. That could be significantly better, I hope.”

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