Aug 12, 2013

UVa Changes Rules Governing Financial Aid for Low-Income Students

University of Virginia

Last week the University of Virginia quietly introduced huge changes in how AccessUVa, one of the most successful and highly-acclaimed financial aid programs in the country, will support extremely low-income students.

Beginning in the fall of 2014, financial aid packages offered by the university will contain loans as part of the comprehensive aid provided to all students with need—regardless of income level.

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

According to a press release from UVa, the addition of loans for low income students will standardize how UVa administers its aid program to all recipients.  As proposed, the new money-saving policy will be phased in by class over four academic years and will not affect any current student receiving aid.

Started in 2004, AccessUVa covered all expenses for those whose families have incomes at levels up to twice the federal poverty rate or $23,550 for a family of four.  In other words, full-ride scholarships were provided to students with family incomes of slightly over $47,000.

Until now, students supported by AccessUVa have not had to borrow.

The policy change passed by the UVa Board of Overseers not only represents a major increase in the cost of a UVa education for some families, it will also likely result in a reduction in the number of low-income students willing to assume this level of debt.  

But to provide some limits, loans will be capped at $28,000—well more than double the average debt incurred by UVa students over four years.

During the first year of AccessUVa, the university spent about $11.5 million supporting the program. Ten years and a bad economy later, the commitment rose to $40.2 million. 

At the same time, the percentage of low-income undergrads attending UVa has risen from 6.5 to 8.9 percent—numbers suggesting a highly successful program that has been lauded in hundreds of press releases sent out by the university’s public relations operation.

And not surprisingly, the new loans are being met with disappointment. 

"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 in a column for the Cavalier Daily.

When questioned about the addition of loans to financial aid packages for low-income students, Greg Roberts, UVa dean of admissions, defended the decision by pointing out that most universities meet need with a combination of loans and grants.  AccessUVa’s policy was generous, he conceded, and the change would just bring the university in line with others.

“This is how it’s done throughout higher education,” he said.

In fact UVa joins a growing list of schools, including Claremont McKenna College, Yale, Cornell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that offered grant-only aid packages to their lowest-income students, only to roll the policy back.

And for many who are working hard to open doors for the least fortunate among us, that’s too bad.

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