$4 million gift calms ire over U-Va. need-based aid cuts


The historic lawn facing the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Norm Shafer/For The Washington Post)

A new $4 million gift to support financial aid at the University of Virginia has blunted some of the criticism the school faced after it decided to scale back a landmark grant program for its neediest students.

The gift from graduate John Griffin, a professional investor and member of the U-Va. governing board, was announced Monday. It is conditioned on the university’s ability to raise $4 million in matching funds. But the university is sticking by its new financial aid policy despite the likelihood of an $8 million philanthropic infusion.

The changes to the grant program, known as AccessUVa, mean that many students from low-income families who enter U-Va. this fall and in years to come will face a requirement that others recently have not: They must take out loans.

As its name implies, the program aims to widen access to the elite public flagship in Charlottesville. Launched in 2004, AccessUVa provides tens of millions of dollars a year to help students in financial need cover the cost of attending the university.

Until this year, students from families with income of less than twice the federal poverty guideline have not been required to take on debt. For example, the income ceiling would be about $47,000 in 2013 for a family of four.

Now, those from Virginia will be asked to borrow up to $14,000 over four years. Those from out of state will be asked to borrow up to $28,000.

The policy shift, which does not impact current students, is projected to save the university $6 million a year when it takes full effect. Debate over the new policy has been sharp since the governing Board of Visitors approved the change with a 14 to 2 vote in August. Defenders say that U-Va. could no longer afford the no-loan policy but that the university continues to be a leader in accessibility.

“It is still one of the best financial aid programs in the country,” Greg Roberts, the university’s dean of admission, said Saturday. He said the number of undergraduate applications from students whose parents did not go to college rose significantly this year.

Critics say U-Va. took a needless step backward on access for the underprivileged.

Many students and alumni mobilized to protest the board’s AccessUVa action. Stephanie Liana Monte­negro Nuñez, 22, of Loudoun County, a fourth-year student at U-Va., said the no-loan policy was a key reason she enrolled. She called the Griffin gift “a good first step” but said the university must do more.

“They’re sitting on a lot of money,” she said, “and it’s just a question of priorities.”

Griffin sided with the majority in the board vote. Helen E. Dragas, also on the board, was one of the dissenters. She told The Washington Post on Friday that in late 2013 she offered a donation to support AccessUVa if the university would rescind the policy change. Dragas declined to specify the size of her offer, which she said has not yet been accepted.

“I’m inspired by and really appreciative of John’s heartfelt generosity,” Dragas said of Griffin’s donation. But she added that the university’s commitment to low-income families should not fluctuate with “the natural ebb and flow” of fundraising. “We need to find a permanent solution” to the issue, Dragas said.

Griffin, through a spokesman, declined to comment. His $4 million gift would channel $1 million into scholarships for outstanding students with financial need in next fall’s entering class, and $3 million to endow financial aid for the future.

The College Board estimates the total annual cost of attending U-Va. — counting tuition, fees, room, board and other expenses — is about $25,700 for Virginia residents and about $53,100 for out-of-state students.

Mary Nguyen Barry, a 2010 U-Va. graduate, said she benefited from the no-loan policy and sees the Griffin gift as a response to the public outcry over the policy change, including an online petition drive to reverse the board’s action.

“What people are feeling is that their voices were heard,” Barry said.

U-Va., with an endowment of $5.17 billion, is one of the wealthiest public universities in the country. But much of its endowment is restricted. To provide AccessUVa with an endowment large enough to cover the estimated $6 million annual expense of returning to a no-loan policy would require raising about $120 million, university officials say.

U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said the school eventually wants to build a $200 million endowment for need-based aid. She called the Griffin gift “a very important jump-start toward achieving that goal.”

No-loan aid policies for needy students are found at some elite private universities, but they are rare at public schools. The public College of William and Mary does not require students from Virginia families with annual income of less than $40,000 to take out loans. But it includes loans in financial aid packages for such students who come from out of state.

Henry Broaddus, William and Mary’s dean of admission and associate provost for enrollment, said the prospect of debt often poses “a psychological deterrent” to prospective students from low-income families. “That’s what is good about having these all-grant packages,” he said. “You can get past that.”

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A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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