Brains but not bucks? U-Va. says tough luck.

August 9, 2013

When the University of Virginia created its AccessUVa program in 2004, it ran a series of broadcast ads proclaiming, “If you’ve got the brains, but not the bucks, the door’s open.” Now the university’s Board of Visitors has dramatically narrowed that door by requiring extremely low-income AccessUVa enrollees to take on almost $30,000 of student loans. The new message? If you’ve got the brains, but not the bucks, tough luck.

As originally formulated, AccessUVa covered 100 percent of demonstrated need, and the program was hugely successful in diversifying the student body. From 2004 to 2009, the number of low-income applicants to the school doubled, and the percent of low-income students who accepted admissions offers increased to 61.8 percent from 49.8 percent. Most important, more low-income students were becoming highly involved members of the university community: participating in study-abroad programs, winning research grants and graduating at rates comparable to those from more advantageous backgrounds.

Thomas Jefferson himself would have smiled on AccessUVa. It was a program that helped select, as he described them, “the youths of genius from among the classes of the poor.” It made possible an education at his university for those with the “talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich.” It drew in students who enriched his vision of a university “based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind,” and not on the limits of financial wherewithal.

This change by the Board of Visitors is a betrayal of that core ethos.

Student loan debt is among the biggest challenges facing young people as they enter the workforce. Total student loan debt in the United States topped $1 trillion in 2011; the year before, it surpassed total U.S. credit card debt. It is the only kind of consumer debt that has continued to increase since peak debt in 2008. What’s more, student loan debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

Forcing extremely low-income students to take on so much debt to attend the university can only impede those students’ social mobility. A study from the New York Federal Reserve found that young workers with student debt are less likely to buy homes than those without it. This is in part because it is more difficult for the former to obtain mortgages or loans at competitive rates. Homeownership is one of the most important building blocks for long-term financial stability. The effect of the board’s decision to gut AccessUVa will be to place extremely low-income students behind the eight ball when it comes to moving themselves up in the world and providing for a more prosperous generation to follow.

The rationale given by members of the Board of Visitors who voted for the change bespeaks a galling ignorance of reality. Vice Rector William H. Goodwin Jr. justified the rollback by arguing that low-income students don’t need a break because, the Daily Progress reported, they have the same earning potential as their higher-income classmates. “They’re all graduating with the same degree,” he said.

But that is not the world facing a brilliant young mind emerging from the coal fields in southwest Virginia or a violence-infested neighborhood in Hampton. For these students, there is often no family financial support to fall back on. Costs above and beyond those covered by loans and other aid — such as transportation to and from school or meals both during and between terms — can’t simply be borne by their parents. For many students, even securing a loan in the first place may be next to impossible.

Admittedly, the Board of Visitors’ decision came in response to directives from the General Assembly to admit more students and maintain academic excellence, with less state money with which to do it. As the board plans for the future vitality of the university, it is confronted with a larger philosophical question about the direction of higher education in the commonwealth: Should the university focus on keeping up with the Joneses in Berkeley and Ann Arbor? Or should it stay true to its founding mission of providing quality education to all Virginians? And why isn’t it possible to do both at the same time?

The actions of the Board of Visitors suggest it is sacrificing accessibility in an effort to husband its resources for other priorities. But that can’t be the right answer. All Virginians should echo the call being made by the students at the university: Let’s find a solution wherein the university continues to provide world-class academics to all of Virginia’s best and brightest.

The writers are University of Virginia alumni.

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