Students protest changes to U-Va. financial aid program

September 22, 2013

When the University of Virginia Board of Visitors voted to scale back the university’s need-based financial aid program last month, ending its no-loan policy for low-income students, administrators were confident it would not have a significant impact on the elite flagship’s racial or socio­economic diversity.

Some of the university’s ­lowest-income students disagree, saying they would not have enrolled at U-Va. if not for the AccessUVa program, which covered their full financial need with grants, scholarships and work-study funding. Dozens of ­AccessUVa recipients gathered in front of the iconic Rotunda on Friday afternoon to share their stories, hoping to persuade the board to reverse its decision.

Several students became emotional as they spoke of how ­AccessUVa changed their lives. Instead of taking less-challenging but more affordable classes at a community college or regional school, they enrolled at one of the nation’s top four-year public institutions. The program allowed them to move away from home and make their education a full-time job.

U-Va. can be intimidating to low-income students, they said, and AccessUVa was their cue that they were wanted.

“I often tell people that U-Va. was my real-life fairy tale, my happy ending,” said Hawa Ahmed, a third-year out-of-state student who fled with her family from Chad in the 1990s and settled in Pennsylvania. “U-Va. should invest in low-income students because we will put the money back into the places that we came from.”

U-Va. officials say that while the change to the program is painful, it is necessary. AccessUVa is not sustainable, they have said, especially as the number of students who qualify for the program has rapidly increased and state funding and tuition revenue have not kept up. Even with the ­changes, the university will see the cost of the program continue to increase.

“We got here by making a business assessment that. . . what AccessUVa evolved into is unsustainable,” board member John L. Nau III, a beer distributor from Houston, said at an August meeting. “It’s more of a business than a philosophical approach.”

Starting with next year’s freshman class, and continuing with each class to follow, low-income students will have to secure federally subsidized loans to pay for part of their education. These loans will be capped at $14,000 for in-state students and $28,000 for out-of-state students over four years.

Administrators say they looked at a range of options, including reducing aid just to out-of-state students, but they think this option will be the least disruptive to the most students. School officials say AccessUVa remains one of the most generous aid programs in the country, but they have not produced data to back up that claim.

Current students will not be affected by the changes, but they worry about those who will come to the university after them. Some of the students who spoke Friday said they come from families that have never taken out a car loan or mortgage, so the idea of taking on five-digit debt at such a young age is terrifying. They are convinced that the change will result in fewer students like them enrolling at U-Va.

U-Va. already lags behind many comparable schools in its percentage of students who are racial minorities or who are eligible for Pell grants. A recent study by an outside consultant found that U-Va. is seen as less welcoming and “more elitist, preppy and homogenous than the competition.” The report also found that fourth-year students were less likely than first-year students to consider U-Va. “welcoming to key minority groups,” including women and racial and ethnic minorities.

“They are just blinded to the impact that they are going to make,” said Stephanie Monte­negro, a fourth-year student who said that at first she didn’t want to apply to U-Va. because of its reputation.

As the oldest daughter of an immigrant mother who makes barely $23,000 a year, Montenegro did not think there was a place for her on the Charlottesville campus. Her mother pushed her to at least try. Monte­negro said that she is so glad she did and looks forward in May to being the first in her family to earn a college degree. That would not have happened if it were not for the financial incentive of AccessUVa, she said.

Such students look at the university’s $1.36 billion academic budget and its $5 billion endowment and wonder why officials can’t find an extra $6 million a year to keep the program going in its current form.

Joseph Williams, a fourth-year student who spent part of his childhood homeless, said U-Va. has chosen not to make low-
income individuals a priority — a decision that has had an impact on low-level staff members and, now, students.

“This institution is a public institution,” Williams said. “It’s a state institution. It’s here to provide services for the state, to uplift the state, to uplift the people of the state, many of whom are underprivileged, many of whom are African American, many of whom are Latino, many of whom are first-generation college students. And when we take away access to those people, we take away what this mission of our university is really about.”

For some low-income students, a few thousand dollars can make all the difference, said Hajar Ahmed, 21, a fourth-year foreign affairs student from Reston whose single mother works in a high school cafeteria.

For Ahmed, her college decision came down to U-Va. and the College of William and Mary. She picked U-Va. because it was larger, seemed to offer more opportunities and AccessUVa would pay her bills.

Her younger sister just enrolled at George Mason University, even though Virginia Tech was her dream school. Tech would have cost about $1,500 more per year, Ahmed said, so her sister is living at home and attending GMU.

Her younger brother is now a senior in high school and had hoped to attend U-Va. Changes to AccessUVa are making that less of a reality, she said.

“They say, ‘Work hard and everything will work out,’ ” Ahmed said. “But it really doesn’t work out.”

Inside the Rotunda on Friday afternoon, the U-Va. board gathered to discuss a strategic plan for the university and other business. There was little mention of ­AccessUVa.

The board’s student representative, Blake Blaze, a football player on a full-ride merit scholarship, read a statement from the activists but said that he stands by the board’s decision.

School officials have been studying AccessUVa for more than a year, but some board members said they felt that they were pushed to vote too hastily in August before having the opportunity to review other options.

Two members voted against the change. One was Helen Dragas, former leader of the board who has pushed for increased access and affordability to ensure that U-Va. does not just serve “the elite.” The other was Kevin J. Fay, a new member.

“I am wholeheartedly in favor of making sure that our AccessUVa commitment is sustainable, but I was disappointed in the extreme in the lack of quality or clarity in the presentation of the issue, as well as the inability of staff to anticipate and answer reasonable questions,” Fay wrote in an e-mail to board leader George K. Martin and U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan the morning after the vote. That e-mail and others were obtained by The Washington Post last week in response to a public records request.

More than 8,500 people have signed a petition urging the board to reconsider its decision. Students and alumni also have flooded the board with e-mails, which were systematically filtered into a folder that board members could choose to peruse or ignore.

“Please do not discuss this petition or related matters on e-mail among yourselves,” the board secretary wrote in a Aug. 16 e-mail to the board and top administrators.

During Friday’s board meeting, Fay suggested that the board appoint a group to further investigate the issue. Some board members appeared offended by the suggestion, stating that the decision is a done deal. But Martin took the idea under advisement.

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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