A budget change implemented last year by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam made incoming students enrolled exclusively in online programs ineligible for the state’s long-running Tuition Assistance Grant program for Virginia residents. In response, Liberty University has filed a lawsuit claiming that this wrongfully denies financial aid to deserving students.
Liberty University is an evangelical Christian school with an extensive online education program.
The lawsuit claims that the eligibility changes have specifically harmed Liberty, and that it threatened “to wreak severe economic and reputational harm on the school.”
Making Higher Education for Low-Income Individuals Inaccessible
Liberty also argues that it disproportionately affects low-income and working students.
In a statement released Friday, Liberty’s Acting President Jerry Prevo explained that the students who choose to enroll at the university and other academic institutions that offer online courses do so for flexibility and accessibility since they are “non-traditional students who are working parents, parents providing child care, military members and veterans, first responders, and economically disadvantaged students.”
“Online courses have also provided educational access for students whose health or medical issues make on-campus attendance impractical, as well as others who require flexibility in terms of where and when they access educational materials. The 2020 VTAG amendments harm all of these groups, and others,” he added.
Governor Northam’s administration claimed that the change is fair because online programs do not incur the same costs as traditional in-person instruction.
‘Violation’ of Equal Protection Clause
The lawsuit requests that the court stop the exclusion of online students from the grant program because it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
“Classifying students as those who receive ‘online’ and those who receive ‘place-based’ education—even if there were a reasoned way to draw a line between the two—is arbitrary because no genuine differences exist in the content and quality of education received by these groups of students,” the lawsuit explained.
The changes that were made to the grant program did not affect students who were forced to switch to remote learning because of the pandemic. The lawsuit highlights this as further evidence that online and residential students need to be treated similarly by state officials.
The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in the Western District of Virginia, named the Director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, Peter Blake, as a defendant alongside Northam. The Council is responsible for managing the administration of the grant.
Due to pending litigation, neither spokespersons from the Northam administration nor the Council have commented further on the case.