MCKELVEY: Make higher-education more accessible

Other public colleges should follow in President Ryan’s footsteps in making public colleges more affordable for low-income students

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During his inaugural address on Oct. 19, University President Jim Ryan announced that low- and middle-income students will be able to attend U.Va. tuition-free.

Andrew Walsh | Cavalier Daily

During his inaugural address, University President Jim Ryan announced his plan for tuition reform — in-state families earning less than $80,000 per year will soon be eligible for free tuition, and those making less than $30,000 per year will be eligible for free room and board as well. This announcement marks a monumental shift in the affordability of the University for low and middle income students, and exemplifies an initiative that should become standard for all public universities in Virginia and across the United States. 

Unfortunately, in the United States today there are many factors that deter low-income students from attending college. Costs of tuition and the looming possibility of unpayable student debt, for example, can easily hold many potential students back. Currently, total federal student loan debt amounts to about one trillion dollars, and approximately two-thirds of college students graduate with some level of debt. Even just below 40 percent of community college students graduate with debt, leaving very few options for low-income individuals seeking higher education. In addition, the lack of financial relief can disproportionately affect people of color. Initiatives to relieve these obstacles are necessary in order to cultivate a socioeconomically diverse student body.

The current level of federal aid for low income students points to the necessity of proposals such as President Ryan’s. While there are some federal protections for low-income families who wish to send their child to college, these programs have significant shortcomings. For example, Federal Pell Grants are subsidies granted to students with exceptional financial need. However, in 2015-16, the maximum award for Pell Grants was $5,775. This amounts to less than 20 percent of the estimated cost of attendance for in-state undergraduate students at the University. Though even these awards often do not go far enough, they do provide some aid for students who need it most. 

Moreover, a 2018 study from New America noted University of Virginia as the public flagship university that enrolls the smallest share of Pell Grant students — about 12 percent.In order to uphold values of diversity, it is necessary to enroll students with lower-income who may have Pell Grants. Hopefully President Ryan’s proposal will help remedy this trend and increase socioeconomic diversity on Grounds.  

President Ryan’s policy proposal is especially refreshing in contrast with the current state of public college affordability. Tuition has continued to rise at public universities, and financial aid awards are failing to make up for this increase. At the same time, while costs of higher education and therefore student debt continue to increase, the benefits of a college degree become clearer and clearer. In fact, the pay gap between those with and those without a college degree has reached an all time high, vividly illustrating the necessity of a college degree in our current job market. 

While it may seem ambitious and perhaps idealistic, tuition programs like Ryan’s are absolutely possible. In a recent interview with NBC, Ryan affirmed that the University does have the funds to make this work without increases to other students’ tuitions. He also said that Student Financial Services is already offering similar aid to undergraduate students. 

In fact, President Ryan’s proposal is similar to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s policies on college affordability that she unveiled during the 2016 presidential race, which aimed to eliminate student debt as a prohibitory factor in buying a home or starting a family. Likewise, there are bipartisan groups working towards implementing ideas similar to President Ryan’s and Clinton’s on a national level. According to Clinton’s plan, the funding for debt-free tuition and limited free college would be created through cutting tax deductions for for high-income citizens. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., even confirmed that funding this plan would be possible, and would not even raise the national debt. 

Public higher education is meant to be accessible, but it has become out of reach for far too many Americans. President Ryan’s explicit promise to ensure free tuition is helping Virginia provide a formal college education to those who cannot afford private colleges or universities. While higher education remains a choice, it is still a path that should be attainable for a broad range of people, regardless of socioeconomic status. If no action is taken, this issue will only continue to get worse. Federal loan issuance has increased by 352 percent since 1990, yet very little action has been taken by lawmakers to address this issue. Individual states and universities must now take action, like President Ryan has, to ensure that lower-income families are not excluded from educational opportunities. 

Victoria McKelvey is a Viewpoint Writer for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

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