Virginia Tech leaders contemplate college access, affordability

[Roanoke Times] Virginia Tech leaders contemplate college access, affordability

BLACKSBURG — Improving access to affordable college educations, especially for students from low- to middle-income families, is a top priority for Virginia Tech, university leaders said Monday.

Depending on its goals for bettering affordability, Virginia Tech needs to increase aid to students by up to $35 million per year, said Vice President for Diversity, Inclusion, and Strategic Affairs Menah Pratt during a university Board of Visitors meeting Monday.

“With our most generous aid, effective cost of attendance is still about $17,000,” Pratt said. “The question for us as an institution is, what should the effective price be for our most vulnerable students? $10,000? $7,000? $0?”

She added that those most vulnerable people are often first-generation college students from low-income and racial minority backgrounds, and part of the university’s mission as a land-grant institution is to provide affordable educations.

Institutional support for scholarships is on a 20-year upward trend at Virginia Tech, with the university funding undergraduates for about $38.5 million during the 2021-22 school year, according to data provided to the board.

In order for the university to improve affordability, that trend will need to continue its upward trajectory, according to the data.

Even still, almost half, 47%, of Virginia Tech graduates in 2022 left indebted, at an average debt of $32,054 per student, according to university documents.

Affordability and access arose as the number one topic of importance when the 14-member board of visitors was surveyed last year, said Rector Tish Long.

On Monday, Pratt said she sought feedback and guidance from the board in determining some next steps. She is working with Matt Holt, head of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, to probe the issue. 

Vice Rector Ed Baine said looking at the gaps in net price could be a good starting point.

“There’s several different ways to approach that,” Baine said. “Some of that could be through discounting … additional state support … philanthropy, there’s a number of ways in order to address what we want to accomplish.”

While a university report said the sticker price of tuition at Virginia Tech is about $6,000 lower than the listed price for other comparable universities, tuition and fees alone do not account for all college costs (the report did not list the individual schools used for the comparison, other than the University of Virginia and William & Mary, for some degree programs).

The average net price for a Virginia Tech education, after factoring in cost of living and other expenses, often ends up about $3,000 higher than other comparable schools, particularly for lower-income students, according to the university report, which used figures from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

To close that gap on net price alone could cost somewhere between $20 million to $27 million in additional student aid, a university official said, responding to a board member question.

Board member Sharon Brickhouse Martin agreed that closing the gap in net costs seemed like a good starting point.

“We need to start looking at options to at the absolute minimum close that gap,” Martin said. “And then, what’s the strategy for us to set goals beyond that?”

And another board member, David Calhoun, said he wanted to double-down on that direction.

“I would just start with closing the gap,” Calhoun said. “Closing the gap has to be the simple measurement for all of this.”

Board member Greta Harris said that Virginia Tech has improved diversity on campus and has met some of its goals to that end, but she wondered how many more potential students are lost to stronger financial aid offerings from other schools.

Harris also asked how housing affordability played into the overall net price discrepancy. 

Board member Jeff Veatch said he had questions about the data used to make those net price comparisons, but agreed there is room for improved affordability, regardless of discrepancies.

“It's a great approach, and I think we do need to look into that,” Veatch said. “We need to do better either way.”

University President Tim Sands said it will be necessary to ask students how affordability affects their access to the Virginia Tech experience: What specifically are they missing out on?

“We’re going to have to look at this as a series of steps,” Sands said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy. Luke Weir

Luke Weir covers higher education and state government. He can be reached at (540) 566-8917 or

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