One of the hottest topics in higher education is affordability. Unless you are among the nation’s exclusive (and expensive) colleges and universities, you are undoubtedly focusing 24/7 on making your institution affordable.

This is true for many public as well as private institutions. It’s all in the numbers. First, there’s the dramatic drop in the traditional market of 18-to-21-year-old students, a trend that is forecasted to continue until 2026. For that reason, growth in enrollments is likely to come from transfers, online and graduate offerings, and, significantly, from the group we once called “non-traditional” age students — those older than 25.

That population now is considered more traditional than those who are just out of high school. With ease of self-paced instruction via online programs and enhanced support services on campuses, these new “traditional” students are recruited aggressively. Drive around Hampton Roads and you’ll see billboard advertisements for universities nowhere near Coastal Virginia.

Second, some institutions still do not understand that higher education is a buyers’ market. They’ve relied too heavily on tuition discounting, failed to upgrade facilities or neglected opportunities for collaboration with other campuses. Another factor that can work against them is not focusing enough on making their campuses diverse and inclusive. Most students will bypass a college where they don’t feel welcomed, accepted, and supported.

Recognition of this reality is causing Methodist-affiliated institutions to rethink their relationships with the national church, given its vote this past winter to outlaw same-sex marriages performed within congregations and to forbid gay clergy from ministering to them.

Finally, private colleges find themselves competing student-for-student against large, public universities — a battle that during the best of times is largely unwinnable for smaller, independent institutions. In Virginia, however, as elsewhere, these aren’t the best of times. Freezing tuition for the publics, and then providing subsidies to offset those lost dollars, diminishes the strength and standing of the smaller campuses.

I’m not saying that our magnificent public universities in the commonwealth are undeserving of such attention. Rather, I’d encourage Richmond to remember them as well the valuable educational services provided by our state’s independent colleges and universities.

In that regard, we’re advocating for an increase in the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grants program (V-TAG). This program annually supports educational opportunities for approximately 23,000 Virginia residents and their families. More than 800 are Virginia Wesleyan students who may otherwise be deterred from enrolling at our private university. While we understood that the awarded amount varies from year to year, it would be beneficial to have the award increased from $3,400 to $4,000 by 2021.

That’s an investment in the future of the commonwealth that can pay outstanding long-term dividends for all of us. In Virginia Wesleyan’s case, many of the students we educate end up staying here. They like the climate, career opportunities, and vibrancy of our communities. And because private higher education delivers quality through innovation, new strategies for instruction, and a student-centered focus, they will be well prepared to contribute to the larger economic and social goals of the commonwealth.

Let us hope that our governor and legislators are listening as we make a compelling case for investing further in the human capital of a state known for excellence in all areas of education.