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Saturday, September 7, 2013
Last summer, the University of Virginia’s governing board shocked students and Virginia residents alike by secretly ousting the university’s president. Realizing its mistake, the board ultimately reversed that decision. But just a year later, the board once again has found itself fielding criticisms over a misguided decision on what’s right for students.
This time, the board has whacked grant aid to students from working-class families, without even conferring with those most familiar with the program: the students.
Since 2004, UVa has been a leader among public colleges and universities for its efforts to provide students with an affordable education. The AccessUVa financial aid program capped the amount middle-class students had to borrow and ensured that low-income students with high financial need could attend without having to assume any additional student loan debt.
AccessUVa benefits nearly 5,000 students and families. It inspired public colleges across the country — from wealthy Georgia Tech to modest Appalachian State.
I was one of those students. College attendance was never certain, given my family’s financial situation. UVa made my dream come true by giving me the chance to attend with no additional debt.
My experience as a scholarship recipient has turned into a lifelong career in education policy: I was able to pursue research and internship opportunities at UVa, as well as a graduate degree in public policy from Johns Hopkins University, because my family wasn’t burdened with crushing undergraduate debt.
But UVa’s governing board recently announced its plan to roll back financial aid for students from working-class families like mine. Students from low-income families will now have to borrow up to $28,000 for a UVa education — if they aren’t scared off from applying or attending in the first place.
Thomas Jefferson would be ashamed. Just as UVa’s board recognized its mistake and reversed the decision to fire President Teresa Sullivan, it should reverse its decision to cut back the AccessUVa financial aid policy.
Until now, AccessUVa has been tremendously successful, increasing the number of working-class students who benefit from the financial aid program by nearly 50 percent. Less than a quarter of undergraduates qualified for AccessUVA in 2004; today, more than a third benefit.
UVa, the wealthiest public college per capita in the country, claims it can no longer afford the AccessUVa program as it was created. That’s surprising, considering that the $40 million financial aid program comprises less than 3 percent of its $1.4 billion operating budget and less than 1 percent of the university’s $5 billion endowment, which has doubled in the last 10 years.
UVa justifies the rollback by saying “this is how it’s done now”; that other colleges load up low-income students with student loan debt. Well, it’s not how it’s done at competitor colleges like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which maintains a no-loan policy while serving proportionately more low-income students than does UVa.
Like me, there are thousands of UVa graduates from working-class and low-income families who owe their college education to the AccessUVa program. In fact, UVa students and graduates from all backgrounds have benefited by attending college with a more diverse student body created by the program. And there are an untold number of students who were able to attend college somewhere else because of a financial aid program inspired by the UVa model.
If you are a UVa alum, or if you are simply a concerned parent, Virginian or citizen, register your disappointment by signing an online petition (tinyurl.com/mjnfmsn) calling on UVa to restore its commitment to financial aid for students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend.
The University of Virginia changed my life. As an alumna, it breaks my heart that my alma mater is trying to shut its doors to low-income and working-class students from families like mine.
Low-income students are not a line item. The board of visitors should take the next opportunity to do the right thing. Otherwise, its members would do irreparable harm to AccessUVa, and in turn, the precious University of Virginia that they have been called to serve.
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