Higher Ed Advocates Focus on Retirement Benefits

RICHMOND- While higher education advocates have focused on getting more state funding in recent years, this year, higher education advocates have added retirement benefits to their list of legislative priorities.

In an attempt to push for increased higher education funding, better faculty retirement options and lower tuition costs for in-state residents, members of three groups spearheaded the task of getting their voices heard. The Faculty Senate of Virginia, presidents of the VCU Faculty Senate, and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) met at legislative offices at 10:30 a.m. Their first order of business was to push for educators’ retirement benefits.

House Bill 486, sponsored by House delegate Onzlee Ware (D-Roanoke) aims to create better faculty retirement incentives. The bill would allow education employees, who currently have optional retirement plans, to have the opportunity to opt-in to the Virginia Retirement System (VRS). Employees who wish to maintain an optional retirement plan, and were hired after July 2010, would be provided between 8.5 and 8.9 percent credible compensation from the commonwealth. All other employees would be entitled to a rate of 10.4 percent credible compensation from the state.

The overriding purpose of the bill is to allow state employees in the higher education system the opportunity to purchase service credit in the VRS based on accumulated earnings and experience, even if said employees are covered under an optional retirement program.

“Many employees come in untenured, so they have a choice whether they want to participate in an optional retirement plan or the VRS. Since optional retirement plans are portable, and can be taken to other systems. But if you get here [Virginia] and you realize how great it is, then you might wish that you had signed in to the VRS,” said Robert Andrews, current professor in the VCU School of Business and organizer of the 2013 Higher Education Advocacy Day. “The bill makes it, so down the road, once [employees] get tenured, they can make a onetime swap to buy equivalent amount of work time in the VRS. It’s certainly revenue neutral, and it’s really important for state employees to buy in to this established benefit plan.”

In addition to retirement benefits, education lobbyists are also looking to provide financial benefits to educators’ families. Senate Bill 104, introduced by Roanoke Democrat John Edwards, would reduce the tuition rate for children of Virginia higher education employees by 50 percent. Although, individual state institutions can currently decide whether or not to waive the tuition rate among employees’ children, SB 104 would ensure that all state
institutions implement the reduction immediately.

“Growing up with a mother as a college professor, you really gain a perspective into how valuable higher education is,” said junior Alex Wells of George Mason University. “I think that being proactive in the House and Senate really shows that we’re committed to the long term prosperity of prospective students and faculty in Virginia.”

Participants in Higher Education Advocacy Day also expressed a need for more state funding to make college tuition more affordable for future students. Members are seeking legislative action to filter more than $200 million for state tuition assistance, as well as more than $2 billion in employer-based financing towards the VRS program.

“We’re important in supporting higher education and maintaining credibility against voices on the other side who feel that they don’t have any responsibility to contribute to higher education,” Andrews said. “If we don’t have competitive institutions that have the financial resources to provide quality faculty members, or opportunities for students to have more feasible access to college, then we inevitably suffer in attracting professional businesses to our state.”


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