Advertising accessibility after tuition hikes

Examining how better publicization of financial aid packages can influence low-income student enrollment

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As tuition prices rise, student can be deterred from enrolling, leaving them wanting the University to advertise financial aid packages more effectively to attract more socioeconomically diverse student body.

Raymundo Mora | Cavalier Daily

In early December 2017, the University Board of Visitors approved the following changes in tuition structure for the incoming undergraduate class for 2022 — a 2.5 percent tuition increase for most in-state students and a 3.5 percent increase for most out-of-state students.

This new tution structure will also include the same increases for all students returning for the 2018-19 academic year. However, rates will remain unchanged for Virginia students who opted for the optional Guaranteed Tuition Plan, an agreement that fixes their base tuition rate upon entering the University so that it remains unaffected by annual increases. 

As public funding for higher education has decreased in past decades, average national tuition rates have trended towards annual increases, imparting a greater financial commitment on the average degree-seeking undergraduate student. Despite this being the third-consecutive year of tuition hikes, the University claims to have kept costs for students as low as possible by trying to hold these increases at or below the rate of inflation for most in-state students.  

Additionally, the University’s increased tuition seems to be on trend with other public universities in the Commonwealth for the 2018-19 academic year, with Virginia Tech seeing a tuition increase of 2.9 percent for in-state students and 3.5 percent for out-of-state students.

The University insists that its financial aid model offers an excellent and affordable education to all qualified students. However, a phenomenon called “sticker shock,” results when potential low-income students who lack knowledge of financial aid packages view the high price of the total tuition amount before financial aid and are subsequently deterred from accepting offers of admission. This effect has made “sticker shock” a significant concern for many student organizations on Grounds.

The financial aid model 

The University is currently only one of two public universities in the country to meet the full financial need of both instate and out of state students, according to Melody Bianchetto, vice president of finance at the University.  

With its financial-aid model, “Access UVA,” the University offers full aid to all eligible students through customized packages which include grants or scholarships, work-study employment and need-based loans. This program was implemented fully for the first time in the fall of 2005. Students who meet the eligibility requirements — such as possession of a high school diploma, a valid social security number and U.S. citizenship or eligible non-citizen status — and demonstrate financial need may apply for aid for all eight semesters of their undergraduate studies. 

Access UVA provides direct subsidized loans to low-income students. Bianchetto explained that in-state students will only have $1,000 in loans every year for a total of $4,000 over four years. All other Virginians have about $4,500 per year for a total of $18,000 over four years.

As low-income students reach this $1,000 loan cap, they will receive additional aid in the form of grants, rather than loans, to at least equal in-state tuition fees. Unlike loans, which a student must eventually pay off, grants are usually need-based financial aid that do not need to be repaid. 

This is the case even with the variance in tuition rates across the different schools at the University, with some schools requiring higher fees due to specialized research equipment or higher average salaries for faculty. 

“[Let’s say] you are a Virginian who’s not low income but you have need and you have $4,500 in loans, and then the next year you go to the McIntire School or the Batten School with a higher tuition,” Bianchetto said. “Most of that increased tuition cost is going to come in the form of grants because you are already hitting that loan cap — we don’t increase the loan cap for those programs.” 

In late 2016, the University Board of Visitors announced another important measure to keep Access UVA fully endowed. The Bicentennial Scholars Fund, an endowment voted on by the Board of Visitors in 2016 to support AccessUVA, plans to match a $100 million investment from the Strategic Investment Fund, a source of funding controlled by the BOV and the University president for various initiatives and research projects, with an additional $100 million from philanthropic donations to provide funding for scholarship programs.

Bianchetto named two additional need-based scholarships intended for high achieving students from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds — the University Achievement Award and the Blue Ridge Scholars Program. She explained that plans have been made to substantially increase the number of these awards offered to the incoming class of 2022. 

“The President and Provost have authorized us to award an additional 50 University Achievement Awards [in-state tuition and fees] and 50 Blue Ridge Scholars Awards [$5,000 grant]” Bianchetto said. 

Effects on minority enrollment

Despite the University’s professed commitment to fostering a culture of inclusion and diversity, the recent events of Aug. 11 and 12 have led some students to question whether this event has particularly discouraged minority students from attending. 

Alex Cintron, a third-year College student and Student Council president, ran on a platform in which he proposed an increase in merit-based scholarships, greater student input in the tuition creation process and regular meetings with minority and advocacy organization leaders.

“Just generally speaking, we are at a moment where this University … is struggling a lot with its past,” Cintron said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “When you do something to increase barriers of coming into this University you also make it so that … students who would not have been here 50 years ago, or 60, 70 years ago, you make it more difficult for … more students to come here who do not fit what has traditionally been a U.Va. student.”

In a email to The Cavalier Daily, Evelyn Wang, a fourth-year Commerce student and former chair of the Minority Rights Coalition, said tuition growth disproportionately impacts minority students at the University. She provided statistics and data from the research she conducted on the impact of tuition increases during the fall 2017 semester.  

“UVA admissions suffers from low yield rates of students of color,” Wang said. “In fall of 2017, only 37% of black students and 31% of Hispanic students offered admission ultimately enrolled. UVA Office of Admissions’ surveys to applicants who don’t enroll cite ‘financial need’ as one of the top reasons they fail to matriculate.”

The low yield rates, Wang said, represent the adverse effects of “sticker shock,” and her research suggests that even if financial aid is provided in proportion to the rising rate of tuition, high sticker prices may stil deter the enrollment of highest need applicants. 

Francesca Callicotte, a third-year College student and president of United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity, said that she chose to attend the University specifically because of its financial aid model, through which she was awarded the Blue Ridge Scholarship.   

Although Callicotte recognizes the significant impact that Access UVA has on making a University education possible for low-income students, she expressed concern that middle class students are often dissuaded by sticker shock, which makes it difficult for the University to achieve its mission of diversity and inclusion.

“I think that with tuition increases at 3 percent you see ... [that] it deters individuals who exist in the middle class … who don’t necessarily qualify for Access UVA but can’t afford to pay $60,000 a year,” Callicotte said. “And there are a lot of people who are racial minorities, ethnic minorities, gender minorities, queer minorities, etc. who occupy that space.”

Moving forward while promoting accessibility 

In order to increase transparency in the tution creation process, Cintron has stated his intention to ensure regular communication between the Student Council and the administration to increase opportunities for student involvement in the proposal making.  

Bianchetto explained that the University issued a public notification last year, offering students an opportunity to discuss the tuition proposal before it was finalized. However, she added that she would welcome additional student involvement under Cintron’s administration.

“I am happy to talk to Alex and see what he has in mind and how we would be able to include students, probably not just in the tuition setting process but also understanding all of the costs that we have to face and the decisions we have to make to build a budget,” said Bianchetto. “It would be good to have a student understanding a little bit closer to it.”

Additionally, Cintron is looking to undertake a multi-pronged approach to tackle tuition increases which would include a legislative lobby component. 

“I would love to see our legislative affairs team being a little bit more aggressive in trying to tackle that, in coordination with other schools such as Virginia Tech, William and Mary, JMU, George Mason and so forth,” Cintron said.

Contracted Independent Organizations under the umbrella of the MRC are also continuing efforts to improve recruitment efforts for minority students and increase awareness of the University’s financial-aid opportunities. 

For those low-income students already attending the University, Callitcotte noted that UFUSED in particular will continue promoting its Income Accessibility Ally Program to waive the membership fees of certain clubs and organizations.  UFUSED will also continue to host “Divergent Voices” events which allow low-income students to candidly share their experiences.

However, as tuition rates continue to rise, Callicotte raised the concern that prospective students who are not made aware of the University’s financial-aid model may be dissuaded from either applying or enrolling.  She suggested that the University take active recruiting steps by hosting information sessions in low-income and rural communities to attract a more socioeconomically diverse applicant pool. 

“We assume as a prestigious institution that people are going to come to us naturally and organically, but that's not the case especially if they’re low income,” Callicotte said. “We have to use the resources that we have on Grounds, the low income students that we already have ... to do this recruiting work for us, because I think no one better speaks to the experiences of low income students other than people being low income.” 

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