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Liberty sues state to defend Constitutional right of online students to get VTAG

Lawsuit contends that amendments to the 2020 Virginia Budget wrongly discriminate against Virginia students using online content to access higher education.


The Legislature’s arbitrary exclusion and discrimination violate the Equal Protection guarantees of the United States Constitution.


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.

“Students often elect to enroll at Liberty and other academic institutions offering online courses for the flexibility and accessibility they need as 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,” added Prevo.

The case, currently pending in the United States District Court For The Western District Of Virginia Lynchburg Division, is titled: LIBERTY UNIVERSITY, on its own behalf and on behalf of its students and prospective students, v. RALPH NORTHAM, in his official capacity as Governor of the Commonwealth of VA, and PETER BLAKE, in his official capacity as Director of SCHEV, Case No. 6:21CV00002.

(The Complaint can be accessed here).