Washington Business Journal: Viewpoint: Virginia must up TAG funding to level education access

By Irma Becerra – Contributing Writer

“No one can take away your education.”
Those words that I heard early on from my grandparents have always stayed with me throughout my life. As a Cuban immigrant and a Latina who grew up in Puerto Rico, I’ve often felt like the outsider looking in at an education system designed for someone else. I still vividly remember being the only female student in the classroom as I worked to become the first woman to earn an electrical engineering Ph.D. from Florida International University. Those words of inspiration from my family motivated me to continue on and reminded me of the importance that education would play in my future success.
Years later, the significance of having a college degree has grown dramatically — and not just for the high-paying, corner office-type positions. Due to automation and other market-driven forces, many of the jobs that don’t require a degree will start to disappear in the near future. This will create an untold amount of consequences for our economy. As president of Marymount University, it is up to me to set the expectation that college is for everyone — a responsibility that I share with my fellow higher education administrators.
For almost the past 50 years, Virginia residents seeking to access higher education at private institutions like Marymount University have benefited from the Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG) program. It has proven to be an incredibly effective way for the commonwealth to invest in higher education and reap the rewards of a more educated population. However, more support for the TAG program is necessary if Virginia is to meet its educational attainment goals.
Currently, TAG provides annual tuition awards of $3,400 for undergraduate Virginia residents who attend accredited private higher education institutions in the commonwealth. Graduate students in the health professions receive TAG awards of $1,700. This amounts to only 4% of Virginia’s general fund support for higher education, despite the fact that private four-year colleges and universities account for 37% of the commonwealth’s degrees, at the bachelor’s level and above.
This imbalance is further illustrated by looking at the per-student subsidies of private versus public institutions. While students at private colleges can receive $3,400 through TAG, the general fund subsidy received by students at public institutions in Virginia is above $7,650 — more than twice as much. Public colleges are also able to receive state financial support in many other categories that private colleges cannot, such as financial aid money, capital expenditures, maintenance, equipment purchases and more.
In order for the commonwealth to more fairly appropriate funds, the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, of which Marymount University is a member, is requesting an increase in the TAG award from $3,400 to $4,000 for undergraduate students and a proportional increase in the award for graduate students in health professions. If lawmakers approve this request, it would represent just a 1% increase in Virginia’s higher education expenditures. When you consider that private colleges and universities in the commonwealth have the capacity to increase enrollments by about 10,000 students, this is a highly efficient and cost-effective way to educate more Virginians.
Increasing the TAG award will also allow a more diverse population to have the ability to take advantage of a college education. Private colleges and universities serve as the true access institutions of the commonwealth — almost 70% of students attending Virginia’s private institutions come from underrepresented populations, compared to about 55% of students at public institutions.
We serve a higher portion of students from lower-income backgrounds, with 45% classified as Pell-eligible (compared with 27% at public four-year institutions and 34% at community colleges). Many in this group are first-generation students who encounter more financial stress and personal obstacles than other college applicants. As a president of a private university, I take great pride in knowing how Marymount and similar institutions are making the American Dream a possibility for these students with exceptional financial need.
More “nontraditional” students who start college at 25 years old or later attend private institutions — they make up 37% of students at private colleges and universities, compared to 11% at public colleges. Also, African Americans account for 17% of private school enrollment, while they comprise 15% at public schools.
It’s also important to remember the unique benefits that private higher education institutions provide. The total enrollments at these colleges and universities are typically smaller than what you will find at public institutions, which leads to smaller class sizes and more personal, hands-on guidance from faculty. For instance, the student-to-faculty ratio at Marymount is 13:1. Our small class sizes result in a more personalized educational experience in which students can interact with fellow students and professors. Statewide, private schools actually produced more nurses and teachers last year than Virginia’s public schools.
With private institutions across Virginia doing so much to advance the futures of students, their families and their communities, it is time for the state legislature to invest more in support of the TAG program. It’s a smart investment that will pay off for years to come.

Irma Becerra is the seventh president of Marymount University.