KELLY: The power of activism

In the absence of institutional reform to restore AccessUVa, students must continue to advocate for the program

This past week, a new report ceremoniously declared the University to be the best annual return on investment in education. And yet, despite all the pomp, the accessibility of public education for low-income students is still in jeopardy. While no one doubts the earnestness of the University’s pledge to assist low-income students, the promise is less believable in the wake of the decision to reduce support for AccessUVa.

I am certainly not alone in my criticism of the University’s decision, but I believe that there is still an opportunity for substantial reform. The ideal of a debt-free education now relies primarily on the stewardship of the student body, alumni and University-affiliated organizations. The donations the program has received thus far indicate a recognition of the long-term benefits that an increased enrollment of low-income students could bring. Indeed, during its tenure, AccessUVa increased the University’s socioeconomic diversity considerably; the percentage of Pell-Grant eligible students has increased by roughly seven percent.

Students have been instrumental in organizing rallies and movements to stress the importance of the faltering program. Indeed, the influence of student support has led to notable successes, such as University Board member and alumnus John Griffin’s $4 million dollar challenge grant. Without these selfless efforts, the future of AccessUVa would be even more uncertain.

Continuing what has become a tradition of charitable support for the program, the University Bookstore instituted a policy this Founder’s Day which pledges to donate all of its profits to AccessUVa.This is no small feat — the Bookstore’s average annual profits total $250,000. Previously, the Bookstore’s profits had gone towards the Endowment for Excellence. According to University spokesperson McGregor McCance, this “unrestricted endowment” used income to fund “scholarships for children of University faculty and staff” as well as “study abroad programs and other academic initiatives.” Despite the new diversion of funds, McCance has indicated that the endowment’s future is secure.

The Bookstore’s policy change is encouraging news. Its efforts should be seen as yet another affirmation that the University community remains committed to need-based aid and a debt-free education. Even though charitable aid of this sort may be effective in the short term, there is still need for institutional reform. A formal, complete commitment to debt-free aid for low-income students will ensure that access to higher education will never be solely dependent on the inclinations of donors.

In the meantime, however, student activism is imperative. As much as an institutional change may be necessary, continued support from student groups is a more meaningful demonstration of the University’s desire to assist low-income students.

I urge the administration to consider what other public universities have chosen to prioritize. The University of North Carolina, for example, plans on maintaining its loan-free program for low-income students despite severe budget strains. The UNC administration clearly values the possible long-term benefits brought by offering debt-free aid over the high costs of the program. For out-of-state, low-income students admitted to both the University and UNC, the prospect of a debt-free education may draw many more students towards the latter.

Granted, the Board of Visitors is likely is well aware of UNC’s decision. Both universities’ financial aid programs for low-income students have comparable costs, yet one has chosen to accept the challenges while the other has chosen to prioritize other administrative concerns. Short of fully restoring AccessUVa, an unlikely scenario, the Board should consider alternative and inventive solutions. In order to sustain its debt-free aid program, UNC mandates that students who receive grants participate in a federal work-study program. A similar requirement for AccessUVa may be helpful in the short-term for lowering the program’s costs.

Otherwise, student involvement will continue to be imperative. By donating a portion of their gifts towards the program, fourth-years have helped to define the issue as a central concern among students. This statement will attract outside attention and will be crucial for future lobbying efforts. Subsequent classes should follow this example. The institutional costs of the AccessUVa program may have risen exponentially over the years, and the changes that have been made may be in pursuit of a sustainable future for the program, but that decision will come at the expense of numerous students who cannot afford to accumulate debt. While the University should be pressured to prioritize a full restoration of AccessUVa, student activism is currently the best means for increasing the program’s visibility and for procuring funds.

Conor Kelly is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

Published April 15, 2014 in Opinion

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