Opinion: Commentary: Virginia Private Colleges Week

Opinion: Commentary: Virginia Private Colleges Week

July 26-31 marks Private Colleges Week in Virginia. Virginia is fortunate to have a very strong higher education system, and private 4-year institutions comprise an integral part: there are 38 four-year higher education institutions in Virginia, 23 of which are private. Although our public colleges are some of the best in the nation, private colleges are uniquely able to meet the educational and professional needs of many Virginians — especially those underrepresented in public institutions.

The sticker price of private colleges is often more expensive than their public counterparts, but financial aid and grant programs can make them more affordable for low-income and underrepresented students. 64% of Virginia private colleges in a recent report have an average family income of less than $100,000, as opposed to 28% of the reporting public colleges. Furthermore, 45% of students enrolled in Virginia private colleges utilize Pell grants, which is a federal program that provides money to students from low-income households that does not have to be repaid. I am a big supporter of the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG) program, which provides annual grants to private college students. Beginning in the 2021-2022 school year, $4,000 will be available per year for qualified undergraduate students and $2,200 for qualified graduate and medical students. However, for those undergraduate students pursuing a career in teaching, payments will be increased by an additional $500 in their senior year. These grants total approximately $80 million per year. Indeed, if the 23,000 TAG recipients were enrolled at public institutions, the cost to the Commonwealth would be much higher.

Additionally, private colleges are also working to address racial inequities in the education system. 69% of the student populations enrolled in 4-year private colleges are from underrepresented populations, which includes non-white US citizens and permanent residents, Pell grant recipients, students over the age of 25, and students from localities with low rates of attainment. Out of our 23 Virginia private colleges, two are HBCUs and one is a predominantly Hispanic serving institution.

As private institutions, these colleges are often more nimble and better equipped to address pressing economic and racial disparities in education. Having a Bachelor’s degree is incredibly beneficial to students as they expand their knowledge base and advance their opportunities in the job market. According to a 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, those with a Bachelor’s degree make $461 more per week than those with only a high school education. Private colleges are able to assist people from all backgrounds in reaping the benefits of higher education.

Beyond creating more equitable outcomes for historically marginalized or low-income individuals, Virginia’s private colleges help us all through their diverse degree programs. For example, 51% of Virginia’s Bachelor’s degrees in education are from private institutions, as are 45% of our nursing degrees. Private institutions also have various graduate programs including one pharmacy school and two osteopathic medical schools. These programs — and their graduates — are central to the health and economy of Virginia as a whole. As a Commonwealth, we need what private colleges can produce.

Private colleges are needed to meet the educational and professional needs of Virginians, especially those underrepresented in public institutions. I encourage my high school constituents and their families, as well as adults looking to start or continue their higher education, to participate in the upcoming Virginia Private Colleges Week. You may be surprised and excited by the diverse and high-quality educational opportunities we have here in Virginia.