Lawyers for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam have asked a federal judge to toss out a lawsuit brought by Liberty University alleging state officials unfairly denied financial aid to the school’s online students.
Lawyers for Northam and Peter Blake, the director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said in a motion to dismiss last week the lawsuit fails to bring valid claims. They also argue Liberty lacks standing and Northam is immune from the suit.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Lynchburg last month, claims state officials discriminated against students in the commonwealth by distinguishing between online and residential students when distributing financial assistance through the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant program.
The lucrative program provides tuition assistance to Virginia residents who attend private colleges and universities in the state, including Liberty and other local institutions of higher learning. Until lawmakers amended the program last year, students enrolled in online classes had been eligible to receive the same amount of financial aid as students enrolled in in-person classes.
“Classifying students as those who receive ‘online’ and those who receive ‘place-based’ education—even if there were a reasoned way to draw a line between the two—is arbitrary because no genuine differences exist in the content and quality of education received by these groups of students,” the lawsuit stated.
Northam’s administration has previously defended the change, arguing online programs do not incur the same brick-and-mortar costs associated with attending college in a traditional in-person setting.
In their motion to dismiss, lawyers from Attorney Gen. Mark Herring’s office said Liberty has no authority to “step into the shoes of the legislature and decree eligibility rules” for the state-funded program. They also argued the lawsuit fails to explain how the university was harmed by changes to the program.
“Liberty’s attempt to dictate program eligibility for VTAG, a state program that supplies public funds to eligible students enrolled at private higher- education institutions, fails because it lacks standing on its own behalf, on behalf of its students, and on behalf of its prospective Students,” the state lawyers wrote.
David Corry, Liberty’s general counsel, said Monday university attorneys are preparing a response to the motion. He declined to discuss the details of the case but said the school will continue to pursue the matter in court. State officials have previously refused to discuss the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation.
The changes to the tuition program frustrated Liberty officials last year who saw the reduction in assistance as a threat to the university’s expansive online education program. More than 5,800 of Liberty’s about 100,000 online students received financial aid through the program in the 2019-20 academic year, according to the university’s lawsuit.
School officials have said the reduction in grant money has disproportionately harmed low-income and working students. Last May, Liberty created its own tuition assistance program to make up for the lost aid.
Former Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr., who resigned last year after a series of personal and professional scandals, repeatedly took aim at Northam and Democratic lawmakers for the changes. Last January, he called on Virginia counties unhappy with the state’s leadership to secede and join West Virginia in part in response to the overhauled tuition program.
Liberty’s lawsuit asks a judge to strike down the changes made to the grant program and to order state officials to treat Liberty’s online students similarly to residential students.
Court documents show the case is currently set for a bench trial, though a trial date has not been set.
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