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Liberty University and VTAG

The State of Virginia is putting together a plan for funding higher education ahead of the next session of the General Assembly, and Richmond Times-Dispatch higher education reporter Karin Kapsidelis [link] has been covering it; some of her articles have been syndicated in the Lynchburg paper and drawn a fair number of comments because of their bearing on Liberty University, chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr, and the continuing complicated relationship between Jerry Jr, Virginia politics, etc.

I really appreciate the fact that the Richmond paper has a higher education beat writer, even if that’s not all Kapsidelis does [link]. I wish from time to time that the Lynchburg paper had a Liberty beat writer, someone who devoted their time to the complex and ever-changing relationship between the school and the town. Unfortunately, as News-Advance reporter Liz Barry pointed out here earlier, articles about Liberty in the Lynchburg paper tend to be short and written quickly, if I understood her correctly, because the paper (and its reporters) has other things to cover and only so much print space.

The Kapsidelis article that’s getting all the attention discusses money from a state program (Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant (VTAG)) going to private schools in the state, particularly to schools that are part of or overseen by religious organizations, and Liberty specifically. She is careful to say that the money is going from the state to students who spend the money at schools [link, link], even though the headlines on the articles could be read to suggest that the money is going directly from the state to Liberty University.

It’s easy to get hung up on the amount of money going to Liberty students, by far the largest of the schools listed, and has the largest number of TAG recipients by more than three to one versus the school receiving the next most money. There’s some variability in the amount per student that goes to various schools (from a minimum of $2197 to a maximum of $2916, with a mean of $2737) but Kapsidelis explains this well, too, by pointing out that graduate students receive less money, so the average per student will vary according to the mix of undergraduate and graduate students.

The comments on the various articles have gotten hung up on the question of whether public money should go to religious schools, and of course the question of the benefit to society of these students. I really have no idea what the latter issue means; the question of benefit to the state in terms of money spent by the schools and/or students seems fairly straightforward but is difficult to pin down: if a given student is getting$1500 or $3000 from the state does that student then turn around and spend enough with local merchants for the state to see the same dollars again as tax revenue? Is there some sort of multiplier effect? I really have no idea.

I hasten to point out that while $12 million would be a lot of money if it were in a single paper bag sitting on a street corner, it’s a relatively small part of Liberty’s budget: 3-4% of Liberty’s $300-400 million annual budget. The numbers from Liberty financial aid head Robert Ritz are helpful:

Ritz said Liberty awards $544 million in financial aid from federal, state and university resources, which includes student loans as well as grants. About $110 million of that financial aid last year was from Liberty funds.

I hadn’t seen this big number before, but the small number is familiar to anyone who looked at Liberty’s IRS form 990 last year.

For the record I’m not a big fan of the TAG program; on principle I’d rather see the state offer lower taxes than making strategic investments. But if students meet the criteria of the program (attending a nonprofit, accredited school; participating in a qualifying school program) I can’t figure why Liberty students should be disqualified.

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