Keep VTAG for online students

Published 8:04 pm Monday, February 10, 2020

By David Olive

I have always enjoyed when old phrases can provide color commentary during pivotal moments, without sounding too cliché. The nearly daily changes occurring in higher education are the most rapid in the history of the industry. They are forcing serious conversations at many institutions, especially rural, liberal arts institutions like Bluefield College. It was our fall meeting with our Board of Trustees Executive Committee as I laid out challenge after challenge our institution faces for deliberation that the phrase “death by a thousand cuts” came to mind.

The most recent “cut” is the proposed change to the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant, or VTAG. Established in 1972, the program assists Virginia residents who attend accredited private, non-profit colleges and universities. Within Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget is an increase to VTAG. This appears to be good news at first glance. We celebrate an increase from $3,400 to $4,000 in the grant program for students improving their position in life through education. However, this change cuts out students who choose online programs as they seek their degree.

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Who will this affect? At Bluefield College, 72 percent of our online bachelor program students are women, and many are also minorities and veterans. Approximately 80 percent of our online students are adult learners, 23 years or older. Of our most recent online bachelor’s program graduates, 82 percent reported having borrowed to attend school.

When we look deeper at the profile of these students, it is plain to see they are hardworking Virginians who are making a valiant effort to improve themselves and, in turn, improve the state of our Commonwealth. They have just chosen a later time in life and a modern approach to education to attain their degree. Why would we want to punish them for this choice and place another barrier in front of them by adding $3,400 to their educational expenses? For many, we fear, that gap in financial support will be enough to cause them to drop out.

Already, shortages in business sectors such as health care are stark, especially in rural areas like southwest Virginia. It is important to note that nationally, 44 percent of online students attend schools within a 26-50 mile radius of home. The college’s online programs in nursing, cybersecurity, criminal justice and other high-demand fields are presently helping address these areas of employment deficits through graduating job-ready individuals for positions in high-demand fields. Meeting the needs of these high-demand fields is a goal Gov. Northam supports, as well. However, the proposed change in VTAG funding seems to contradict what is already at work through online programs, such as the ones offered by Bluefield College.

It should be no secret that private colleges and universities in Virginia are centers for economic prosperity in the communities they serve. At Bluefield College, we estimate a near $20 million annual economic impact to our local region. These institutions are also an essential part the quality of life enjoyed by many residents in these areas through the arts, athletics and programming. The significant influence they have on local culture directly relates to opportunities for these areas of rural Virginia to grow and develop.

We frequently see assistance provided to businesses in Virginia in order to build upon our strong economy. There is also an argument to be made that private higher education is one of the highest-quality and best products produced in our Commonwealth. For students and private higher education enterprises, VTAG is that assistance. Any cut or change impacts essential business functions and makes even more difficult the ability to adapt to change.

In closing, the reality is private institutions will not be able to innovate fast enough if students’ access is cut off through many changes, like the one proposed to VTAG. Further, these students are the police officers protecting our communities, teachers in early childhood education centers where our children attend, nurses that care for us at our most vulnerable moments, and case workers on the front lines fighting the opioid crisis. We urge the General Assembly to consider this in their deliberations. We also ask you to contact your legislators today and encourage them to support the VTAG program for all students, whether they attend college in person or online.


Dr. David W. Olive is president of Bluefield College.