(In)come as you are

The University should above all else maintain its commitment to granting access to low-income students

The Cavalier Daily recently reported on a joint meeting of the Board of Visitors’ Financial and Educational Policy committees (“University financial aid program beats out competitors” http://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2012/11/university-financial-aid-beats-out-competitors,” Nov. 10). The consultancy group it hired issued a lengthy report of proposed changes to AccessUVa, which we later picked through for nearly an hour on the University Financial Aid Committee. Comments from the Board took nearly as long. Meanwhile, one of the only things The Cavalier Daily piece reported was that the University of Virginia is underpriced compared to its peer institutions. But there are other critical elements to the decision of whether to raise tuition on middle class families at the University or, worse, whether to cut back on the University’s commitment to bright low-income students. None of them were reported.

For one, there are concerns about state funding. Pat Hogan, the University’s new Executive Vice President and COO, expressed that there is an “[u]ncertain climate surrounding state and federal funding.” When many of our Board members and members of the General Assembly attended the University, the state met the majority of the school’s costs per pupil. As pointed out repeatedly in this meeting, that is not true today.

Even if the Board does decide middle class families should have to pay even more than the $25,000 or so it costs to attend the University, that might not matter. As Senior Advisor to the Board Bill Goodwin noted, “We’re in an environment in this state where any tuition increase is going to be met with trouble in [Richmond].” If tuition increases aren’t an option, what else can the Board propose? Beyond hinting at lowering the poverty line criterion to include fewer students, Rector Helen Dragas also noted, “We don’t have a budget cap on this program, and so it’s grown rapidly. When you have a program that’s costing so much money, some consider whether there should be a budget cap going forward.”

At the University Financial Aid Committee, it became evident that Student Financial Services could soon require a Minimum Student Contribution of $1600 to keep financial aid costs down — meaning that for very low-income students with an Estimated Family Contribution of $0, the University would assume they could contribute the money anyway. If they can’t, they’ll have to decide what they want to go without, maybe books or food. Even if President Sullivan implements the robust work-study program at the University where students have an opportunity to do real work in their chosen fields, as she mentioned at the joint committee meeting, these students would still need to find a second job to bring that minimum contribution each year.

What does that all mean? The University is already planning not to keep its full commitment to all of the bright, qualified applicants who are unable to afford the more than $25,000 a year that the University currently costs. This hardly seems fair. Neither does asking more of middle class students who already take out nearly $1 billion dollars in student loans each year in Virginia alone. The current 200 percent poverty line criterion means that a family of four making $44,000 a year is eligible for AccessUVA. Lower the poverty line criterion, and that family of four is suddenly responsible for a yearly tuition quickly approaching their entire yearly income.

The University made a commitment to make the University accessible to every qualified applicant who is offered admission. Now it seems evident that if the University cannot raise tuition rates on middle class families, it will have to break that commitment to bright low-income students who deserve the opportunity that the University can afford them. As the University still struggles to pay all of its workers a living wage, still wants a Board that represents its community down to the very lowest paid member, and still wants for true Jeffersonian egalitarianism, it should at least keep its full commitment to low income students in good faith. Anything less seems outrageous. So does not reporting on it.

Brendan Wynn is a third year in the College.

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