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The Board of Visitors will submit a final ruling on tuition and fees for the 2020-2021 academic year on May 15.

The JMU Board of Visitors held a virtual public comment meeting Tuesday to discuss the potential increase of tuition and fees due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Freshman in-state students may see a tuition increase between $0 to $1,000. Sophomore and junior Virginia residents’ tuition may swell to an additional $362 while in-state seniors’ may surge $330. For undergraduate out-of-state students, the board will consider a tuition increase of $500 for all classes.

The Board of Visitors will also appraise raising the student’s comprehensive fee — which is already one of the highest in the state — between a 2.5% increase of $124 and a 4% increase of $198 more than this year.

If the “worst case scenario” plays out and the Board of Visitors implements the harshest possible increases, JMU’s tuition will be the ninth most expensive of Virginia’s 15 four-year universities. Currently, it’s sitting at No. 11.

The Board of Visitors will submit a final ruling on tuition and fees for the 2020-2021 academic year at its meeting on May 15.

JMU originally planned on freezing tuition for the second year in a row because the Virginia General Assembly allocated significant state funding to higher education in their 2020-2022 biennial budget. However, the coronavirus has created economic instability, forcing lawmakers to reevaluate the $7 million funding to JMU.

Months will likely pass before legislators make a final decision on funding, and the Board of Visitors must issue their verdict on tuition soon. Charlie King, the senior vice president for administration and finance, said JMU must move forward under the assumption that it won’t receive the funding. If they’re wrong, King said students will receive a refund for the hiked tuition cost, but he said he doesn’t anticipate that this will be the case.

The proposed tuition increase ranges were determined by a few key university goals, including maintaining a low student-to-faculty ratio, increasing operational costs for new facilities and inflation. The cost factors driving the suggested comprehensive fee growth include operating costs, new facilities like the 150,000-square-foot College of Business building and student services.

Tuition funded 70% of JMU’s operating budget for educational and general programs this year, while the general fund from the state accounted for 28%. JMU ranked the lowest among four-year Virginia public institutions for general fund per in-state full-time student, receiving $5,294 per student, as opposed to the state average of $7,140.

King said that since 1998, the general fund has been cut almost in half, from 47.3% to 28.3% in 2020. Student tuition picked up the slack.

“This is why we’re so dependent on tuition,” King said. “But we do a heck of a job with what we’re given.”

Despite being the lowest funded institution in the state on a per in-state student basis, JMU’s total cost of attendance is also one of the least expensive among four-year institutions in Virginia.

Two members of the public phoned into the meeting. The first was Stacie Gordon, the state advocacy manager at Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust.

“Put the students first,” Gordon said. “Many of your students’ families are currently facing significant financial hardships and uncertainties as well.”

Gordon said JMU has an opportunity to send a message to its students that “the university has their back” if they freeze tuition like the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg and Christopher Newport University in Newport News did.

“Now is not the time to ask students and parents to pay more, especially considering the fact that returning to an in-person classroom setting may not even be possible in the fall,” Gordon said. 

Gordon said increasing tuition is likely to exacerbate a decline in enrollment next year. She said 63% of graduating high school seniors are rethinking their first choice for college, and 21% of those students say it’s because their families can no longer afford it due to the pandemic.

King said other institutions report that they expect between a 20% and 40% decline in enrollments due to the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus.

“Enrollment is our lifeline to balance the budget,” King said.

Freshman deposits were due May 1. The number of students who submit their deposit is highly indicative of the number that will actually attend in the fall.

Vincent, anout-of-state student whose identity was confirmed by interim university spokeswoman, Caitlyn Read, but was unable to be given to The Breeze, asked why students won’t be refunded a fraction of the comprehensive fee because students aren’t able to use the auxiliary services it funds like the bus, UREC and athletic events. King answered that the money has already been spent to cover payroll to avoid staff layoffs and new buildings.

“Everyone’s taking a loss right now,” Vincent said. “The school — being a nonprofit organization — should also be able to also take that loss. Being overleveraged for these other projects like the basketball stadium is really not the students’ fault.”

In 2017, the Board of Visitors approved the Madison Pledge, which promised to not raise in-state students’ tuition more than 3% for the following three years if state funding remains faithful. King said state funding hasn’t remained stable, so the university may be forced to break the pledge.

King insisted that the tuition spike is worth the high return on investment for students. He cited that JMU was ranked No. 25 on Money Magazine’s “Best Colleges for Your Money” list and has the highest post-graduation employment levels of all Virginia colleges, according to the United States Department of Education.

“The bottom line is we couldn’t have predicted this pandemic or this crisis any more than anyone else could,” King said. “There has to be a way to cover that cost, and we just don’t have that kind of reserves to do that.”

Contact Brice Estes at estes2ba@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.