U-Va. to scale back financial aid program for low- and middle-income students

Correction: An earlier version of the story misstated the governing board’s vote tally. The vote was 14 to 2 with one member absent, not 15 to 2. This version has been corrected.


With plans to scale back financial aid to low- and middle-income students, the University of Virginia joins the ever-growing list of prominent universities that have pared back such program. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
August 6, 2013

The University of Virginia will scale back the amount of scholarship and grant money it provides to low- and middle-income students as part of the public school’s plan to save millions of dollars a year, a change slated to begin in the 2014-15 school year.

By doing so, U-Va. joins a growing list of prominent universities that have pared back financial aid in the face of overwhelming student need and tight resources. School officials said they will continue a “need-blind” admissions approach that does not pick students based on their family’s ability to pay tuition.

The U-Va. Board of Visitors started AccessUVa nearly a decade ago as a financial aid program that essentially covered the cost of attending college for undergraduates who are from families that make less than twice the federal poverty guideline. (This year, that means total earnings of about $31,000 for a single-parent with one child or $47,100 for a family of four.) A leading goal was to increase socioeconomic diversity at U-Va., Virginia’s flagship public university.

When the program launched in 2004, less than a quarter of undergraduates qualified for AccessUVa. U-Va. has since grown its enrollment and increased its tuition, and now more than a third of students qualify. The program costs more than $40 million per year, up from $11.5 million during the 2004-2005 school year. Much of the AccessUVa money comes from tuition paid by other students.

“We have known for some time that these rising costs were not sustainable,” U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan wrote in an e-mail to students, staff and faculty this week.

Last fall, U-Va. officials added federal work-study opportunities, which include paid internships with faculty members, to the AccessUVa offerings. But that, along with some other administrative changes, did not do enough to reduce the cost of the program.

School officials pursued a few options — such as limiting the program to only in-state students or lowering the maximum family income level to qualify — but administrators and some board members instead decided to include federal student loans in the aid packages, shifting the financial burden from the university to students and their families.

The amount of these loans will be capped at $28,000 over four years. For in-state students, who pay a lower tuition rate, the maximum loan amount is expected to be about $14,000 for four years.

The U-Va. Student Council urged the board not to dramatically change AccessUVa, writing in a letter last week: “For many years, we have upheld the ideal of equal access, of judgment based on merit and merit alone. It is absolutely imperative that we continue to so do.”

Student Council President Eric McDaniel said Tuesday that the change will have a “serious impact” on low-income students, who often have more challenges facing them and less financial support from their parents. But he also acknowledged there are “increasingly few places left to streamline or cut back on to make these ends meet without impacting the quality of education or student experience.”

The university will phase in the loans over four academic years, starting with freshmen who matriculate in fall 2014. The changes, which will not affect current students or incoming freshmen, are expected to save the university $6 million per year.

The U-Va. Board of Visitors approved the change in a 14 to 2 vote Saturday. One of the dissenting votes came from former board leader Helen Dragas, who has staunchly fought to keep tuition rates low.

“I have heard from several outstanding students who share my concern that we have just made U-Va. even less accessible to talented young Virginians,” Dragas said Tuesday. “This goes against our mission of affordable excellence and undermines [university founder Thomas] Jefferson’s insistence that excellence and access were both essential to perpetuating a democracy.”

Even with the changes, U-Va. administrators are insistent that AccessUVa is one of the most generous financial aid programs in the country. A news release announcing the change was headlined: “Board of Visitors reauthorizes acclaimed Access­UVa­ Financial Aid Program.”

Sullivan and others point out that U-Va. graduates have an average loan debt of $11,700, significantly lower than the national average college loan debt of nearly $27,000. Offering loans to all students is only fair, they have said, as all students enter the same workplace after college. The university plans to aggressively raise funds and build up an endowment for AccessUVa.

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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