They gathered, nearly 60 strong, at the University of Virginia’s landmark Rotunda last month.
While the university’s Board of Visitors deliberated within, students stood silently outside, many dressed in black. Some had sealed their mouths with duct tape inscribed with a message: “Access denied.”
They weren’t complaining about accessibility to the board meeting, which they later entered. They were protesting the board’s decision over the summer to trim back the expansive AccessUVa financial-aid program.
For nearly a decade, the university’s neediest students, who make up about 9 percent of U.Va. undergraduates, received enough funding so they could graduate without debt. Future students, however, will be required to take out loans, which they’ll have to repay.
More than three months later, that rollback continues to generate resistance from higher-education advocates; U.Va.’s student government; past and current AccessUVa recipients, who say they have gathered 9,000 signatures on a petition asking to restore funding; and former rector and current board member Helen Dragas of Virginia Beach.
The debate has pitted fiscal management against diversity and inclusiveness. It also has raised questions about the priorities of the university, one of the nation’s wealthiest state-supported schools, and of the program, which spends most of its money on out-of-state students.
Beginning next fall, incoming students at the lowest income levels at U.Va. will have to start taking out loans of up to $3,500 a year, $14,000 over four years, for Virginians, and $7,000 annually for out-of-staters. Anything else they can’t afford, including books and room-and-board, still will be covered by grants and work-study jobs.
The switch will save U.Va. $6 million a year by 2017-18. The annual cost of AccessUVa has nearly quadrupled to $40 million from $11 million when it was launched in 2004. Most of the money comes from tuition revenue, with the remaining $9 million from the university’s endowment. The cost jumped partly because of families’ growing needs after the recession, and tuition increases triggered by declines in state funding, administrators have said.
Patrick Hogan, U.Va.’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said the cuts are crucial to ensuring the program’s future.
They’ve been “greatly exaggerated to the point where people are saying the financial-aid program has been decimated,” Hogan said. “I don’t think there’s been an appreciation of just how strong this program continues to be. Nobody’s putting in the kind of institutional resources that we are.”
AccessUVa has been cited as one of the most far-reaching aid programs at U.S. public universities. An administrator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – recognized as the other leading East Coast public university providing grants – said she could not estimate how much the school spends on its Carolina Covenant plan, but that it’s below $24 million.
The U.Va. students who will be required to take out loans come from families with incomes that are no more than twice the federal poverty level. That means $46,100 or below for a family of four. The loans will account for less than 15 percent of the total cost of attending U.Va.
But critics say that by going back on its no-loan promise, the university will scare off needy students and reverse progress toward diversity at a school criticized as being too homogeneous.
A $3,500 annual loan “might seem small to others,” said Mary Nguyen Barry, a daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who was an AccessUVA recipient and graduated in 2010. “But the concept of debt is very alienating and scary, not just for low-income families, but also for students who might be the first in their family to pursue college.”
Dragas, one of two board members who dissented in the August vote, spoke about AccessUVa at its meeting last month. She continues raising the issue, she said, “because Jefferson’s vision – that exceptional academic quality be available to all – absolutely must remain U.Va.’s core mission.”
“Excellence cannot be only for the elite – that’s what keeps public universities public,” Dragas wrote in an email.
Of the $40 million that the university spends on AccessUVa, $23 million – or nearly 58 percent – goes to students from outside Virginia, university spokesman McGregor McCance said.
David Breneman, a U.Va. professor of education and public policy who studies the economics of higher education, said it’s “totally reasonable” to ask students from even the poorest of families to “repay a modest amount of debt” after receiving a degree from U.Va. But during an interview, he sounded torn on whether U.Va. should subsidize out-of-state students.
“If we’re trying to reduce the outlay of this program, there’s a case to be made that we owe Virginia residents opportunities to attend U.Va. that, in some sense, we don’t owe to students from Maryland, New York or New Jersey,” said Breneman, a former dean of U.Va.’s Curry School of Education who was not involved in the recent change to AccessUVa.
Non-Virginians make up almost one-third of the student body and nearly the same proportion of AccessUVa recipients. But because the cost of out-of-state tuition at U.Va. is more than twice that of in-state tuition, they account for the majority of AccessUVa funding. “Many of those students need financial-aid support as well,” Hogan said, and the university didn’t want to treat them differently.
Barry, now an education analyst in Washington, argues that U.Va. has sufficient resources to find the extra $6 million: Its annual budget, excluding its medical center, totals $1.2 billion, and its endowment is valued at $6.1 billion. “Things can get reshifted and reprioritized,” Barry said, “if it simply held to its core mission.”
It’s not so easy, Hogan said. Most endowment funds are tied to specific uses, he said, and U.Va. can’t siphon too much from the rest without draining it. As for the budget, “to take any more out of our operations would not be possible” without further tuition increases. The university, however, plans to pinpoint AccessUVa in future fundraising campaigns, he said.
AccessUVa was touted as a vehicle to broaden the student body, but the university is still facing criticism that it is not sufficiently diverse. A consultant’s report last summer warned that prospective applicants see U.Va. as “more elitist, preppy and homogeneous” and “less welcoming” than many of its competitors.
In terms of racial diversity, the university’s overall minority population has grown since AccessUVa was launched, but the proportion of black undergraduates has declined to 6.2 percent, according to data from U.Va. AccessUVa has boosted the proportion of minorities: About half of the beneficiaries of AccessUVa are not white, and 14 percent are black.
In terms of economics, the percentage of students eligible for Pell grants – a frequently used indicator of low income – has risen to 14 percent from 8 percent since AccessUVa began, administrators said. That still makes U.Va. “one of the least socioeconomically diverse public colleges in the country,” according to a study in May from the New America Foundation, a Washington research institute. Nevertheless, the report praised U.Va.’s “extremely generous” financial aid program.
But since the board’s action, the study’s author, Stephen Burd, has denounced U.Va. “It really does make you question whether they’re serious about serving low-income students,” he said, describing the cutback as “really bad public relations.”
Burd predicted that those students “will think twice about going. All we know from the testimonials of people who have gone through that program is that the prospect of not having to take out loans really helped drive their decision to go there.”
If that happens, Dragas warned, it will harm U.Va. and the commonwealth: “The experiences of all students suffer when diversity declines. Out-of-state universities with better aid packages stand to gain our best and brightest – who may not return to Virginia after college.”
Hogan said, “We do not expect any adverse consequences, but we’ll be monitoring this very carefully.”
U.Va.’s president, Teresa Sullivan, and the rector of its board, Richmond lawyer George Keith Martin, did not respond to several requests for an interview.
When AccessUVa was unveiled nearly 10 years ago, it came with several promises. One was “a new commitment to eliminate need-based loans for low-income students.” That was dropped this summer.
But the larger goal was to reach any student whose family needed help paying its bill. So the program also encompasses middle-income students, some with family incomes above $100,000.
It now helps about 4,840 students – or nearly one-third of all undergraduates. Of the students in the program, about 27 percent – or 1,310 – have been eligible for the no-loan promise. Even after the change, Hogan said, the university will fulfill its pledge to cover every dollar that any family can’t afford, either by grants or loans.
“This was the option that we thought was the fairest to all of our students,” said Hogan, an Old Dominion University graduate who joined U.Va. a year ago after a career in accounting and finance. “That’s how we arrived at our decision.”
That hasn’t convinced U.Va.’s Student Council, which unanimously passed a resolution last month asking the board to reinstate the no-loan policy for the neediest students. The student government also has asked students graduating next May to donate money to AccessUVa. The Faculty Senate has not taken a position.
Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, said she feared that U.Va.’s action could ignite a trend of retrenchment: “Other institutions could say, ‘I have money problems,’ and all of a sudden they will recant their promise.”
Some private colleges have already scaled back their programs. Several, including Yale University and Williams College, placed more burden on students who aren’t at the lowest income levels. Last year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, like U.Va., eliminated its loan-free promise for low-income students.
Locally, the College of William & Mary offers the program most similar to U.Va’s: W&M promises no loans for in-state undergraduates with family incomes not above $40,000. This year, 168 students are covered, admission dean Henry Broaddus said.
In North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Carolina Covenant program, like U.Va’s, has promised that students at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or below won’t need loans. And, like U.Va., it applies the same admission standards to those students.
Chapel Hill also includes out-of-state students. The program costs far less than AccessUVa because Chapel Hill enrolls far fewer out-of-state students – they make up about 18 percent of the student body – and tuition is significantly lower.
Shirley Ort, the UNC associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid, said she couldn’t estimate how much of the program is paid for by university funds. But she said a combination of “institutional and private” sources cover 58 percent of its $41 million budget. That means the university spends less than $24 million – or no more than 60 percent of U.Va.’s total outlay.
The Covenant program is an easy sell because administrators don’t need to lapse into “financial-aid speak,” Ort said.
“We would hope that we would continue that policy in the future. But let’s face it: Every institution has to look at available resources and priorities.”
Philip Walzer, 757-222-3864, firstname.lastname@example.org