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Liberty University is suing Governor Ralph Northam and the Director of the State Council of Higher Education, saying that the loss of the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant last year – or “V-Tag” – for online college content discriminates against those students in favor of  “place-based” students. Until last year V-Tag had been available for both on-campus and online-only students. An amendment to the 2020 state budget made that change. Liberty says the case is now pending in the United States District Court For The Western District Of Virginia, in the Lynchburg Division. 

(Liberty release) LYNCHBURG, Va. — Liberty University, one of the largest private, nonprofit Christian universities in the nation and the largest university in Virginia, filed a Complaint today against Governor Ralph Northam and the Director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, to defend the equal protection rights of Virginia-based students.

 The Complaint alleges that amendments to the 2020 Virginia Budget wrongly exclude Virginia students who access higher education through online content from receiving the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant, discriminating against those students in favor of so-called “place-based” students.

 Since 1973, the state of Virginia has provided economic assistance to Virginia residents seeking higher education through the VTAG program. Until 2020, VTAG funding has been available to students without distinguishing the extent to which they access educational content through online platforms. However, for the first time since the VTAG program was established, the 2020 Virginia Budget excluded awards to new students enrolled “in an online education or distance learning program.”

 The 2020 VTAG amendments, as applied by SCHEV, treat two identical students taking the same classes and using the same online resources differently if one is administratively classified by his or her school as part of an “online program” and the other as part of a “place-based” program. This is unconstitutional discrimination.  Governor 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.

 “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.

 Liberty’s lawsuit seeks to have Virginia students who pursue “online education or distance learning” be treated the same as Virginia students who pursue “place-based” education when it comes to awarding VTAG funds.