Liberty University sues state over tuition assistance cut for online students
School claims state grant changes discriminate against online learners
Liberty University, the large, private nonprofit Christian school in Lynchburg, has filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam and the director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), alleging that amendments to the 2020 state budget “wrongly exclude Virginia students who access higher education through online content” from receiving the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant (VTAG).
With more than 108,000 online students enrolled as of July 2020, in addition to more than 15,000 students on campus, Liberty is the state’s largest university by enrollment.
In a statement issued Friday, Liberty claims the state’s budgetary changes discriminate against online learners in favor of “place-based” students.
Since 1973, VTAG has served as a non-need-based grant for Virginia residents attending a participating Virginia private college or university. According to Liberty, until 2020, VTAG funding had been available for students without distinguishing what percentage of their learning they accessed through online platforms.
In 2020, the General Assembly increased VTAG aid from $3,400 to $4,000 per student for Virginia residents enrolled in on-campus classes at 30 eligible private, nonprofit colleges and universities across the commonwealth, including Liberty. However, the Assembly changed the rules so that Virginia students taking online classes at these private universities and colleges were not eligible to receive VTAG aid. In May 2020, Liberty established its own aid program for online students in response to the state changes.
In the statement, Liberty says “Northam’s decision to penalize online learning is particularly perplexing in light of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic by educational institutions that have highlighted the value of online educational programs.”
Liberty says the case is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia — Lynchburg Division.
“For the past 20 years, online resources have proven an increasingly important tool that higher education institutions employ to educate students, and the VTAG program has played an important role in making higher education available to all Virginia students regardless of their circumstances,” said Jerry Prevo, acting president of Liberty, in a statement. “Students often elect to enroll at Liberty and other academic institutions offering online courses for the flexibility and accessibility they need as nontraditional students who are working parents, parents providing child care, military members and veterans, first responders and economically disadvantaged students.
“The 2020 VTAG amendments harm all of these groups, and others,” Prevo added.
Liberty has been in the spotlight many times this past year for controversies surrounding its former president Jerry Falwell Jr. The son of Liberty’s founder, Falwell built the evangelical institution into an online powerhouse and one of the world’s largest Christian universities. Falwell resigned last August as the university’s president and chancellor after Giancarlo Granda, a former pool attendant and business associate of the Falwells, alleged that his long-term affair with Falwell’s wife, Becki, took place with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s knowledge.
Falwell filed a defamation lawsuit against Liberty on Oct. 28 before dropping it at a hearing on Dec. 9. On Aug. 31, Liberty announced that “a leading forensic firm” was conducting a probe to investigate financial, real estate and legal matters at the university stemming from Falwell’s tenure as university president.