AccessUVa changes risk leaving low-income students in the dust
Students on full-grant aid share their personal journeys with the program
Not much fuss was made in the lead up to Aug. 3, 2013, when members of the Board of Visitors voted to make changes to AccessUVa, the University’s financial aid program. Strategic cuts — the elimination of all-grant offerings — were made in an effort to save around $6 million from the University’s annual budget. As word of the changes spread, and once students and faculty returned to Grounds in the fall, opposition to the changes arose.
Hajar Ahmed, a fourth-year College student from Reston, Va., receives full-grant aid from AccessUVa. Although she will be grandfathered in to receive full aid for the rest of her time at the University, Ahmed has made it a personal mission to campaign for the restoration of all-grant aid, so that future students may continue to benefit from the program.
“I would not be at the University if it were not for AccessUVa,” Ahmed said. “It has seriously changed my life.”
The eldest of three siblings, one of whom is also enrolled at an in-state university, Ahmed said financial aid considerations were not at the forefront of her college application process. Her decision, however, ultimately depended on the availability of funds to offset the cost of a degree.
“My mindset was to apply to as many places as I could, and work out the money situation later … even though I knew there was a possibility I would have to turn down a lot of [acceptance] offers,” she said. “AccessUVa was able to meet 100 percent of my need, and that was the deal-breaker to me over other schools.”
Once enrolled, Ahmed said there were times where she felt her full-ride, though enabling her to attend the University, also stigmatized her.
“[Now] I feel like I’m as integrated as everyone else [at the University] … [but] I almost transferred my first year due to this environment — the stereotypes [are] why I had such a hard time coming out as a recipient of AccessUVa,” she said. “[People think] you’re lazy, entitled … that’s what I wanted to hide.”
Stephanie Montenegro, a fourth-year College student, is also a full grant recipient of AccessUVa aid.
“I would receive money for the semester two weeks after classes started,” Montenegro said. “I would be terrified for those two weeks at the beginning of each semester because there was a chance I would not have enough money to cover my first month’s rent.”
Despite facing her own challenges, Montenegro said other students receiving financial aid face even more difficult situations.
“Another recipient of AccessUVa aid gives half of the appropriated money to his family to support them financially,” she said. “He budgets the other half of the money for the entire semester and has two other jobs to make up for the half given to his family. Most college students do not have to worry about these types of money issues, but when you do it affects your life. If you are involved in an organization that has a social event on a weekend, the cost of attending that event might mean not having enough money for next week’s meals or next month’s rent.”
Full-grant aid provides a standard amount of funding to all students at the beginning of the academic year, intended to cover room, board and tuition for the entire year. For first-years, this includes on-Grounds housing and a standard University dining hall plan. Students also receive a refund check in addition to this standard amount, intended to cover books, transportation and other basic needs.
If a student decides to go off of the meal plan, or move to an off-Grounds housing location, the cost of University dining and housing plans is subtracted from the initial amount and added onto the student’s refund check, to be used toward other forms of food and housing.
But even these funds are not always enough, Ahmed said. In addition to a full class schedule and heavy extracurricular involvement, she works a part-time job to provide financial security.
“That aid was enough to support me,” she said. “But what if an emergency happens or [I] get sick? Those things ran through my mind all the time … you never know what will happen tomorrow.”
Ahmed also helps support her family at home with the income from her job on Grounds.
“I’ve had a job since I was 14,” she said. “I worked senior year to help my mom with expenses … she makes barely enough for paycheck to paycheck … and when I went to college I could see how missing that money was hurting her. So second year I got a job again to send money to her and my siblings.”
Under the restructured AccessUVa program, in-state students in the lowest income bracket will be asked to take out roughly $14,000 in federally subsidized loans in the course of their four years at the University, and out-of-state students would have to take out $28,000.
If something is not done to reverse the AccessUVa cuts, Ahmed said, she fears the cultural and socioeconomic makeup of the University will be negatively affected.
“This is not an issue of money, it’s priorities,” she said. “We’re talking priority, and the administration is not making all of the students here a top priority.”
In addition to the adverse affects on the diversity of the student body, Montenegro said she is also concerned the changes will ultimately worsen the college experience for students who would otherwise be receiving all-grant aid.
“Administrators told me that we all graduate with the same degree and equal chances of success, but that is not entirely true,” she said. “Realistically, a lot of students get money from their families to go abroad or take a year off and find a job. Now with these changes to the program, students receiving grant aid will not have the ability to do those things. Instead, they will be forced to take any job they can get after college in order to repay their loans. Graduating from any university, even U.Va., does not guarantee you success.”
— Correction: An earlier version of this article said in-state students would have to take out $28,000 in loans in four years, but that number is for out-of-state students. In-state students will have to take out a maximum of $14,000 in four years.