Access If You'll Borrow

U. of Virginia changes rules for its highly praised program for low-income students. Going forward, they will need loans.

August 7, 2013

The University of Virginia has won widespread praise for a program to cover essentially all costs for low-income students. And the program appears linked to increasing numbers of such students enrolling. But citing the high costs associated with those increases, the university is now making its aid packages less generous -- and will start to require that loans make up part of the package.

The move is being criticized by student leaders, who say that adding $28,000 in loans for low-income students undercuts the ideas behind Access UVa, as the program is called, and could discourage some students from enrolling.

The program, started in 2004, covers all expenses for those whose families are at levels up to twice the federal poverty rate. That rate is $23,550 for a family of four -- so the full-ride scholarships currently would go to those with family incomes up to just over $47,000.

The idea behind the University of Virginia program -- which has been among the models for such efforts at public institutions -- was that many low-income families are scared off by high sticker prices, may not be assured by general statements about the availability of aid, and may not feel comfortable borrowing. A straightforward package, without loans, was seen as a way to reach such students.

Until now, students in Access UVa have not had to borrow. Loans will now be part of the package, but with caps so that students would not have to borrow more than $28,000 over four years.

The news release from the university explaining the decision to add loans offered plenty of evidence that the program has worked well in attracting more low-income students to the university. Since the start of Access UVa, the university said, the proportion of undergraduates who qualify for need-based financial aid has increased from 24 to 33 percent, the percentage of undergraduates eligible for Pell Grants has increased from 7.8 percent to 14.2 percent, and the percentage of low-income students has grown from 6.5 percent to 8.9 percent.

But as tuition has increased and the percentage of students eligible for Access UVa has increased, so has the institution's costs. The university said that it spent $11.5 million on it during the program's first year and $40.2 million in 2012-13.

Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the university, said: "Our commitment remains ensuring access to the University of Virginia for the best students, regardless of their financial challenges. At the same time, we have an obligation to responsibly manage limited resources. These adjustments to the Access UVa program provide the balance needed to accomplish both goals."

The loan requirement will be phased in, and will not affect currently enrolled students. By 2018, the loan requirement is expected to be saving the university $6 million a year.

A column in The Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper, blasted the changes. "I can say with absolute certainty that I would not be in the place I am today without Access UVA, because its all-grant aid package provided me a chance to overcome any limitations solely attributable to financial circumstance," wrote Thomas Madrecki, a 2010 graduate.

A crucial part of the program was that it "leveled the playing field" such that students from the lowest income brackets could have the same college experience as wealthy students, Madrecki wrote "[T}hough it wasn’t something I frequently brought up on Grounds -- after all, family financials can be embarrassing amid considerable socioeconomic inequality -- the tremendous benefit of Access UVA was to me a sign of the university’s forward-thinking generosity. The university was not just a place where some people could pay to go to school, but a place where even the lowest-income earners could aspire to compete with anyone in the country."

Madrecki had particular scorn for the headline on the news release announcing the change -- "Board of Visitors Reauthorizes Acclaimed Access UVa Financial Aid Program" -- a headline, he noted, that didn't exactly flag that the aid packages were being changed in a way unfavorable to program beneficiaries.

"As someone who makes their living doing public relations in a corporate lobbying office, I’ve seen my fair share of audacious messaging. But [the] press release and the accompanying quotes (surely written by the Office of Public Affairs) strikes new ground," he wrote. "Should we really be cheering the reauthorization of a weakened program? And are smart, capable university students and alumni really supposed to buy in to the idea of 'moderating costs' as anything more than a clever turn of phrase?"

Madrecki said that "most damning" were the statistics about how the university has attracted more students who are low-income -- in a news release about making grants less generous to those students. "Wasn’t that the whole point -- to increase the socioeconomic diversity of students on Grounds? To draw more low-income students?" he asked. "So we’re going to change something, because it might be working?"

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