Things were all right until Reggie White's grandfather moved away, leaving the 16-year-old and his grandmother to get by on her retirement money and his after-school job at Hardee's.
Then she started forgetting things, getting confused, losing checks. By the time a doctor told them she had Alzheimer's disease, White said, he had been taking care of her for months in their weary old house in western Virginia.
Sometimes the lights went out when the bills weren't paid. Sometimes dinner cooked by a friend or a bag of groceries dropped off was all they had. White kept having to miss high school to take care of her, and if there was one thing his grandmother always told him, it was to study and go to college.
Last week, he started classes at the University of Virginia on a full scholarship, part of a push by the school to increase the number of low-income students there.
Over the years, the number of poor families sending their children to U-Va. has dropped steadily, a particularly stark example of a national trend. In the 2003-04 school year, U-Va. had a lower percentage of students receiving federal Pell grants -- used as a gauge of family income -- than did dozens of other most selective schools, public and private. A 2003 study found that although fewer than 9 percent of U-Va.'s students got Pells, the national average for all four-year institutions was 20 percent.
The proportion of wealthy students seemed to be rising in recent years, too: In 1993, about 10 percent of U-Va. freshmen who filled out surveys estimated their parents' income at $200,000 or more. By last year, that figure had jumped to nearly 22 percent.
To turn the situation around, President John T. Casteen III led the university last year in designing generous need-based scholarships, such as the one White was given, and other aid; this year, funding for the program was increased to more than $20 million annually, and nearly 800 entering freshmen will benefit.
A national study of elite colleges found that most students come from families in the top quarter of incomes and only a small percentage come from the bottom quarter. It's an especially embarrassing problem for flagship state schools, which were founded to provide opportunity to everyone.
"It's a national crisis," said C. Daniel Mote Jr., president of the University of Maryland, which has added need-based scholarships in the past few years, including some that ensure that students from families with incomes below poverty level will graduate without debt.
Some schools, including U-Md., Towson University, St. Mary's College of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, have added hefty scholarships that target needy top students from Baltimore public schools. And Friday, the College of William and Mary announced a scholarship program, the first major initiative of new President Gene R. Nichol: Any student accepted with a family income of $40,000 or less will graduate debt-free.
The trend started at Harvard University and has spread to several public colleges in the past few years. AccessUVa guarantees that any student whose parents earn up to about $38,000 supporting a family of four gets tuition, room and board, books and fees covered. Another 600 or so students get financial aid with limited or no debt.
To spread the word, U-Va. has launched TV ads, hired people to help families with application forms and sent representatives to small towns.
"No one's going to argue that we didn't have problems or we don't still have problems," said Yvonne Hubbard, the university's director of student financial services. "But we're trying to fix it." This year, school officials expect about 250 freshmen to qualify for Pell grants, more than the school has had since 1999.
Offering scholarships is not the total solution, said William Bowen, a co-author of a book on equity in education. It's not just ever-higher tuitions shutting people out: He and colleagues found in a study of 19 selective universities that wealthy students were six times more likely than poor students to be considered strong candidates for admission.
But for someone such as Reggie White -- one of the nearly 200 students who started classes last week with all U-Va. costs covered -- the scholarship has the potential to change everything.
Members of White's family have taken care of one another through generations of hardship. His grandmother helped his mother, who was 16 when he was born. His father dropped out of his life early on, White said, and his mom was a friend, but his grandparents raised him.
White's grandmother Jean Jones was always dressed up, very proper. She was strong-minded, religious, with firm feelings about education. The family moved back to her home town of Clifton Forge, Va., when White was 5 because a relative had had a stroke and Jones couldn't stand to think of strangers taking care of family.
In White's town in the mountains, 20 minutes from the West Virginia line, people who don't go to college work at the paper mill or on the railroad, he said.
He told his friends to get out, to go to college. Many told him they couldn't afford it.
He said he thinks many at his predominantly white high school had lower expectations of the black students. That never happened to him.
"I always tried to set myself apart," White said, "so people would see that glow -- that drive."
He was president of the black heritage club, chairman of the Key Club and a member of the National Honor Society, Students for Christ, student council and the yearbook staff. He was in the marching band, jazz band -- every kind of band. He sang in the church choir. And he got along with everyone.
He wanted to go to the University of Virginia, even though he was aware of the recent racial friction. In the past week, some black students found racial slurs written on their message boards and heard epithets shouted from cars.
"People look at it as exclusive," White said.
But it was the best school for him, he said: the most elite, the most demanding, the place that would offer the most opportunities. He visited a friend at U-Va., soaking in the traditions, the mix of students. He went to a football game and swayed with the crowd as it sang the "Good Old Song." His friends at home started calling him "Mr. U-Va."
Then his grandfather moved away.
White wouldn't leave his grandmother, who was starting to seem older. Things went downhill quickly. Soon he was cooking dinner, cleaning the house, paying the bills, accepting help from friends, neighbors, church members.
His grandmother started wandering off. She couldn't go to church anymore. Her hair got ragged. Her strength and her polish and her smile disappeared.
They couldn't afford the car anymore, so White said he would walk the two miles or so after school to work and walk home after midnight when his shift ended. He was exhausted and scared that everything he had worked so hard for his whole life was going to be lost.
He kept thinking of how much his grandmother wanted him to go to college. He kept wondering how he would afford tuition on his own and who would take care of his grandmother if he left.
He wasn't going to let strangers take care of family.
On the day his admissions decision would be posted online, he took a deep breath, walked down the hall with fingers crossed on both hands and typed in his password.
"When I saw the word 'accepted,' " he said, "I went bananas," jumping, screaming, laughing, saying, "Yes yes yes!"
He and his grandmother hugged and cried. He's not sure she understood, but he knew she was happy for him.
This spring, his grandfather agreed to come back to take care of Jones so that White could go to college. And then White's financial aid package came in the mail: everything covered.
He packed up his few things after graduation and moved to Charlottesville for a summer session. He signed up for his first African American studies class, filled his cell phone with new friends' numbers, planned volunteer work to perform and clubs to join and walked around the Lawn, reveling in it all. He put his favorite thing right by his bed in his dorm room: his 8-by-10 photo of a little 5-year-old Reggie on his grandmother's arm, both dressed up as though for church, both beaming.
"That's the grandmother I remember caring for me," he said. "It's a reminder of all that: I have to be successful."