Free College Tuition Proposal Is Ill-timed Given GVI’s Huge Debt and Our Crumbling Infrastructure

Gubernatorial candidate Soraya Diase Coffelt

Two gubernatorial candidates have expressed publicly their support for legislation to give free tuition to every high school graduate in the U.S. Virgin Islands who wants to attend the University of the Virgin Islands.

As the mother of two sons who graduated from college in recent years and who assisted with paying their college tuition, I can understand the desire of both parents and students to have free tuition to attend UVI. However, now is not the time to consider adding another financial obligation on the Government of the Virgin Islands when we are suffering from a crumbling infrastructure and huge government debt.
According to the Governor’s proposal, $3 million would be set aside annually to fund a scholarship program for up to 1,700 V.I. undergraduate students from the rum cover-over funds. UVI would raise the balance of any money needed.

According to the Bryan/Roach gubernatorial team, their plan would have the government pay for all tuition costs which they estimated would be $3 million. They tout that money can be moved from the budget for the Bureau of Corrections to UVI’s budget to cover that cost.

The current annual UVI tuition cost is $4,631 per undergraduate student. For 1,700 students, the total tuition cost would be $7,872,700 per year.

The reported debt of the government hovers around $2 billion, not million! Our infrastructure has deteriorated significantly. Our roads are filled with potholes and many are dangerous to motorists as potholes have grown to become craters while some roads are caving in. Our hospitals are in a state of disarray. Our public schools’ structures are deteriorating.

WAPA is owed about $33 million by the government. Its CEO Lawrence Kupfer recently testified before the Senate that it would likely have to seek rate increases to cover its 2019 budget shortfall of $45 million. Our Government Employees Retirement System has an unfunded liability of $2.8 billion and will soon collapse if the government does not regularly pay current contributions and have funds to pay the unfunded liability. Many vendors and contractors, especially those who have provided services since the hurricanes, have complained about not being paid by the government. Some National Guard service members still report that monies are owed to them for their services after the hurricanes.

Additionally, the Bureau of Corrections is one of the V.I. government agencies that continues to be under a court-imposed consent decree due to many grave problems that rose to the level of violating inmates’ constitutional rights, including the lack of mental health care, shortages of prison guards, and significant structural deficiencies in the facilities.

In fact, the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1980s and the resultant consent decree are still unresolved. And, there are many more pending court-imposed, consent decrees against government agencies that have yet to be resolved, including one with the V.I. Police Department. Of course, what is a common excuse for the government’s continued non-compliance? The government does not have the money!

Now is not the time to be adding yet another financial obligation on our burden-plagued government. The focus should be on generating revenues to pay down existing debts and stop the waste, misuse and abuse of public funds. Furthermore, immediate attention needs to be given to improving our healthcare system, roads, GERS, and WAPA for example. Moreover, we need to implement an educational plan with long-term solutions to better prepare our children for the 21st century workforce, whether it be to attend college or to learn a career and technical skill.

The bottom line is that finding ways to spend money is easy – the difficulties are using wisely the money we have now to pay for our critical needs, finding ways that will actually generate revenues to fund our critical needs, and refraining from adding new spending initiatives until the government debt is under control. Election day is around the corner and the voting public must be astute as to what is being told to them now to win votes.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment that establishing a tuition-free path to higher education for graduates of Virgin Islands high schools is ill-timed. Your argument that we have other more critical things which need the GVI’s investment is, in my view, a “straw man” argument. No one can argue the point that there are not dire issues that face the territory that require significant amounts of money. What I believe your position fails to account for is that, in the end, this plan is something that will pay for itself.

    Funding scholarships to UVI will ultimately both save and make money for the VI taxpayers. First, free tuition for college will motivate many students to stay in high school and graduate, thereby reducing dollars that would have to be spent to address the crimes and other social problems created by “detached youth” (not to mention, prevent untold suffering of the youth, their families, and our community). Second, free tuition will allow more UVI students to persist with their academic careers. As a professor who serves as an academic advisor to UVI students, I know firsthand how challenging it is for many of our students to pay for school and support their families. The latter will always take precedence. With tuition scholarships, many more who start UVI will graduate with a degree, rather than debt. Third, higher high school and college graduation rates mean more Virgin Islanders will enter the workforce, and into better paid positions, and thus contribute more to the revenue base of the territory. Fourth, better educated parents who are more gainfully employed, can support their children better financially and psychologically, thereby reducing the needs for programs which most low-income families must rely on to survive. I am sure this list could even be expanded further.

    I applaud your goal for 100% literacy among Virgin Islanders. However, it is not an end in and of itself. We want students to be literate so they can be productive citizens of the Virgin Islands. We should also not be pitting vocational opportunities against higher education. It is not an either-or proposition. Both options, free of tuition, should be made to all students in the Virgin Islands. Sometimes you must spend money to make money. With respect to the proposal to make a UVI education tuition-free for those who cannot afford it, I believe the time to do this is now. Our future depends on it.

  2. Disagree.

    First you cite Infrastructure. I think we all know all of the things you cite are in the pipeline. The road repairs have started. The hospitals and the schools will be rebuilt with federal recovery money. Event the airports and the power plant is being addressed.

    Yes, we do have debt needing to be replayed

    However, the candidate’s calculation forgets that the student will first apply for financial aid and be guided through the aid grants such as Pell grants and other federally sponsored aid program. The remainder will be addressed by endowments and scholarships given to the university by companies doing business in the V.I. and then the government’s funding for tuition payment.

    If we are graduating 800 or so students a year from our high schools, it is very unlikely we ever have 1700 applicants for this program a year. Remember, it is a needs based program. Plus an investment of 3 million a year, if it reaches that amount, in your young people is something which should not be dismissed.

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