RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia undergraduate students with the most need for financial aid are not getting enough to pay their tuition, according to a new report.

Some of Virginia’s public universities, the report says, are awarding large shares of their state grants to those with more financial support before the needs of those with no to very little ability to pay tuition have been met.

These issues and others concerning Virginia’s higher education financial aid programs and policies are laid out in a report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), the state’s legislative watchdog agency.

Points of concern

Unmet financial need and debt

SOURCE: JLARC staff analysis of student financial aid data from SCHEV, academic years 2011–12 through 2020–21. NOTE: EFC = expected family contribution. Median EFC is shown for in-state undergraduate students who are eligible for financial aid (EFC <$15,000) and attend Virginia’s public four-year higher education institutions.

More financial aid is available in Virginia than before, with the General Assembly agreeing to invest into state aid programs, but fewer people can pay for higher education as costs have risen.

This has led to assistance being spread out to more students and “substantial unmet financial need and debt.”

According to the report, the unmet financial need for tuition and fees in the 2020-21 school year totaled $162 million after all federal, state, institutional and third-party grants were awarded. The report added that the figure was $977 million when considering the total cost of higher education, including tuition, fees, room, board, books and supplies.

Nearly half of the more than 33,000 students impacted have “no ability to pay for higher education,” the JLARC report said.

SOURCE: JLARC staff analysis of student-level financial aid data from SCHEV, academic year 2020–21. NOTE: EFC = expected family contribution toward higher education for an academic year.

JLARC found that students at Virginia’s historically Black colleges and universities face more unmet financial needs than other public universities.

For example, the report says Virginia State University and Norfolk State University had 13% of the state’s undergraduate students unable to pay for higher education in 2020-21.

Those students combined to make up $5.3 million in unmet needs, more than the total for students “with no ability to pay at all but three other institutions.” VSU and NSU graduates that year had $32 million in combined total student debt, according to the report.

“Financial challenges affect students’ academic success, and along with a greater inability to afford higher education costs and significant levels of student loan debt, VSU and NSU students had especially low six-year graduation rates,” the report states, noting that research shows that aid is a vital tool for helping students finish their education.

Policies lead to hurdles, underfunding and more issues

The Virginia Guaranteed Assistance Program (VGAP) and the Virginia Commonwealth Award program accounted for more than 95% of the state financial aid funds used in the 2020-21 school year. Requirements for these programs, including one for VGAP that students are enrolled full time, keep many from being awarded state aid, according to the JLARC report.

“Institutions estimated that, of the nearly 15,000 students receiving VGAP in 2020–21, more than half lost VGAP eligibility because of the full-time enrollment and progression requirements,” the report states.

JLARC labeled Virginia’s funding to institutions to award grants to the students in most need as “insufficient.” According to the report, eight of the state’s 15 public four-year institutions did not get enough funding in 2020-21 “to meet the financial needs for their neediest students.”

The report added that while state law requires Virginia’s higher education institutions to direct larger state grants to students with the most need, schools are allowed to adopt different schedules for awarding the aid.

With this policy in place, JLARC’s report said that students with moderate and minimal needs have received aid while those with “no ability to pay still had remaining need.”

While the awards to those with minimal financial need (expected family contribution of more than $15,000) and moderate need (expected family contribution between $6,001 to $15,000) addressed a legitimate need, “more state funds could have assisted needier students,” the report said.

Proposals to address concerns

JLARC staffers shared policy options and recommended several legislative actions for the Virginia General Assembly to consider with the lawmakers on the commission.

Among the recommendations, the report says lawmakers could consider amending state code to remove requirements to receive awards through VGAP, including grade point average thresholds for high school and college.

The report also recommends allowing students enrolled in at least six credit hours to be eligible for pro-rate state aid through VGAP.

To make sure schools are prioritizing students with the most need, JLARC recommends that the General Assembly could create more parameters for awarding state grants, including a “statewide financial aid awarding schedule.”

JLARC’s staff also recommended that Virginia eliminate VGAP and integrate it with the Commonwealth Award program, saying two separate programs “causes confusion among students and increases the workload of financial aid staff.”

Update: This story was updated on Nov. 16 after JLARC informed 8News that its initial report had incorrect labels on a chart showing how schools awarded state aid. Lauren Axselle, the project leader for the JLARC report, wrote in an email that the “error was unfortunately not identified before publishing during our accuracy verification process with institutions.”