By: Katlyn Riggins
Liberty University is no stranger to scandal. Former university president, Jerry Falwell Jr., resigned in August 2020 after years of controversy finally caught up to him. In years past, Falwell was criticized for racist remarks and his public support for President Trump during the 2016 campaign. In the months leading up to his departure, he was suspended for posting a provocative photo to his instagram account. Finally the news broke of an extramarital affair, which ultimately led to his resignation. While the Falwell scandal captivated many, Liberty has a much bigger scandal for which to answer.
Liberty University is the single largest recipient of funds from the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant (VTAG) Program. Liberty also happens to be among the worst non-profit, private colleges in the country for low-income and racial minority students in terms of enrollment, affordability, and completion.
The Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant (VTAG) Program
VTAG is a grant for undergraduate and graduate students (96% of aid goes to undergraduates) who are Virginia residents attending private, non-profit four-year institutions in the Commonwealth. Grant awards are based on neither income nor academic merit. A significant number of VTAG recipients have no financial need. It’s just a matter of applying.
In 2018, the average VTAG award was $3,066. The total amount of funding for the VTAG program was $66.5 million in 2019. Liberty took in close to a quarter of that money. It received over $16 million dollars in VTAG funds in 2019—four times as much as any other institution, a similar percentage as previous years.
What are Virginia taxpayers getting from Liberty in exchange?
1.) Declining Diversity
Even with the massive amounts of public funds Liberty receives, Black enrollment has been going down at the institution for the past decade. Of the student body population, roughly 10 percent of the students are Black, even though the population of Virginia is 20% Black and the population of Lynchburg is 28% Black.
2.) High Costs for Low-Income Students
As our recent issue brief on Virginia’s College Affordability notes, Liberty also chooses to charge a high out-of-pocket price to students from low-income backgrounds. In 2019, two-thirds of Liberty graduates left school with student loan debt, and a quarter of them owed more than $45,000.
Although Liberty enrolls a high number of students from low-income families, the price they pay they are expected to pay is quite steep. In fact, over the past 10 years, the average net price (that is out-of-pocket cost after all grant aid) for Liberty students who come from families with incomes under $48,000 has increased by more than 40 percent.
That’s deeply disturbing given Liberty graduation rates.
3.) Low Completion Rates
Just 30 percent of Pell Grant recipients at Liberty graduate within six years of initial enrollment. In 2019, the Black graduation rate at Liberty was just 17 percent — and that’s only for full-time students and again over a period of time stretching six years from initial enrollment. Nationally, part-time student graduation rates are substantially lower as are on-time rates (i.e. bachelor degree conferral at the conclusion of four years of study).
Redirect Funds to Schools with Better Outcomes
We’ve got a better idea for the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Virginia should redirect all state student grant aid to needy students attending quality colleges, especially public colleges, and non-profit private minority serving institutions that lack institutional resources. In fact, federal lawmakers from Virginia and beyond should be doing the same with new grant dollars and they should hold institutional leaders accountable (p. 16) for results.
Jerry Falwell has become an embarrassment for Liberty University, but Liberty University is an embarrassment for the Commonwealth of Virginia.