KABIR: Limiting access
Recent changes to the AccessUVa program could prevent many students from being able to afford a U.Va. education
With whispers in the air about the AccessUVa financial aid program’s swelling costs, the Board of Visitors finally made a decision last month to restructure it. Since it launched in 2004, AccessUVa has offered all-grant aid packages to students whose families made less than twice the federal poverty line ($47,100 for a family of four). This practice allowed some low-income students to attend the University without taking out loans. With the newly structured program, loans will now be counted as part of students’ aid packages. The program caps the amount of need-based loans a student can accumulate in four years at $28,000 for out-of-state students and $14,000 for in-state students. The changes will go into effect for new students beginning in the 2014-15 academic year. They will not affect any current students receiving aid from AccessUVa.
University leaders chose to modify the program because they feared AccessUVa in its previous form was not sustainable. The proportion of students qualifying for need-based aid has increased from 24 percent to 33 percent since the program began.
While I understand the reasoning behind the program reform, I cannot support it because the program is being scaled back in a context where the cost of education is increasing. For example, in-state undergraduate tuition increased by 3.8 percent this year, which is about $452 for in-state students. At first, that figure may not appear to be a lot. But in addition to tuition, the cost of on-Grounds housing is also increasing. In 2008, a standard double room dorm on McCormick cost $3,830. Now, the cost for that same room is $5,270. Even with inflation in mind, this price increase is significant.
Keeping in mind other expenses such as increasing food prices, higher education is slowly becoming out of reach for low-income families. Students can, of course, use scholarships offered by the University or externally by organizations and companies. However, those opportunities are both competitive and limited. External scholarships are often open only to high school seniors entering university rather than students going into their second or third years. So for many if not most students, AccessUVa is the best option for low-income families who cannot afford college out of pocket.
One point that University leaders have made is that all students enter the same workplace after college, so offering loans to all students — even those who would previously receive all-grant aid — is only fair. I disagree. Students from higher income brackets have a degree of financial stability that lower-income students do not have. Take, for example, a student from an upper-middle-class family (with student loans) who is applying for jobs, but is unable to find one. If a student from a lower-income family faces the same situation, that student could have a much more difficult time in managing her student loans because she will not be able to rely on the somewhat financially stable background that a student from an upper-middle-class family may enjoy. Both students face less-than-desirable circumstances: they are in debt and without a job. But the student from a lower socioeconomic background would have less of a fallback financially. A student from a more financially stable background may be able to have his parents temporarily pay the loan, whereas that may be difficult for a low-income student. While yes, all students do have to face the same employment market, it does not mean that all students will feel the burden of loans in the same way.
Moreover, because low-income students do not have a financial fallback, they might be more hesitant to take on the loans necessary to attend the University. Even if a student has the academic chops to succeed at the University, the changes to AccessUVa could discourage him from attending. This in turn could reverse much of the efforts University leaders have made in the past decade or so to improve the school’s socioeconomic diversity.
I understand that with budget cuts, compromises and sacrifices made to be made in order to ensure the University’s financial health. And I acknowledge that the cost of AccessUVa was increasing. But I think the Board needs to reconsider the specific reform that has been implemented. Often it is finances that determine whether or not a student can attend a university, and the University is cutting the cord that would have made it more feasible for low-income students to attend in the first place.
Fariha Kabir is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. Her columns run Wednesdays.