Henrico County VA

Higher ed advocates focus on retirement benefits


While higher education issues seem hidden behind state gun control and uranium mining discussions at the Capitol so far, professors from VCU and other schools are urging legislators to improve retirement benefits for public university and college employees.

Pushing for more funding for higher education, better faculty retirement options and lower tuition for in-state residents, three groups spearheaded the task of getting their voices heard last week.

Officials from the Faculty Senate of Virginia, the VCU Faculty Senate and the American Association of University Professors met at legislative offices Thursday morning. Their first order of business was to push for educators’ retirement benefits.

House Bill 486, sponsored by Delegate Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, aims to create better retirement incentives for public higher education employees.

The bill would allow such workers, who currently have optional retirement plans, to opt in to the Virginia Retirement System. 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 “creditable compensation” from the commonwealth. All other employees would be entitled to a rate of 10.4 percent creditable compensation from the state.

Creditable compensation constitutes all the salary and wages paid to a full-time, salaried higher education employee as a result of services performed. It also includes payments for compensatory time, severance pay or employer-provided payment for the purchase of service credit in the VRS.

The purpose of HB 486 is to give state employees in the higher education system the opportunity to purchase service credit in the VRS based on accumulated earnings and experience, even if those workers 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, organizer of the 2013 Higher Education Advocacy Day.

“The bill makes it so down the road, once [employees] get tenured, they can make a one-time swap to buy equivalent amount of work time in the VRS,” said Andrews, a professor in the VCU School of Business and an officer in the VCU Faculty Senate.

“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 Democratic Sen. John Edwards of Roanoke, would reduce the tuition rate for children of Virginia higher education employees by 50 percent. Currently, state universities and colleges can decide individually whether to waive tuition for their 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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