Putting our money where our mouth is

AS THOUSANDS of high school seniors receive their thick envelopes from the University in the coming week, many won't be deciding based on academic reputation or social scene. For many students, the decision of which college to attend comes down simply to money. The University should continue -- and deepen -- its commitment to educational affordability, and students already enrolled should help.

A lot of ink has been spilled in these pages about socioeconomic diversity, but it is important for those of us already ensconced in the University community to remember what this sort of diversity can do for all of us. There is certainly something to be said for the basic principle of any institution of higher education making its doors truly open to scholars from all walks of life. That is noble, and there is probably some Jefferson quote about natural aristocracy of the intelligent we could throw around to make ourselves feel good. Socioeconomic diversity at the University enriches everyone's experience by providing different perspectives on everything from car choice to Kant.

University administrators have done a lot to foster this sort of diversity through the AccessUVa program, which caps loan amounts at a reasonable rate and promises to meet "100 percent of demonstrated need for all admitted undergraduate students." The first students to benefit from AccessUVa program will graduate this May. At its inception, many criticized AccessUVa for not going far enough in meeting the needs of truly disadvantaged students. The Board of Visitors originally pledged less than four million dollars to the program, and students had to come from well below the poverty line to qualify. Today, AccessUVa receives $20 million, and many students qualify for grants that free them from the necessity of unbelievably large student loans. To receive need-based grants rather than loans, students still must come from a household that is below 200 percent of the poverty line. In the Class of 2011, however, there are still fewer than 1,000 students who qualify for the program, according to a press release issued by the University last summer. AccessUVa still has a long way to go to provide true financial aid to all students. For middle class families, writing a $20,000 check every year is unreasonable. Right now, AccessUVa helps very few out-of-state students.

Some of the fault for that low number also certainly lies in the University's reputation as an institution full of elite, wealthy students, making those who might quality for AccessUVa think twice about attending or even applying. The group Hoos for Open Access is working with the administration to combat that perception. According to President Josh Mitchell, the group assists in calling prospective students to discuss financial aid and life at the University, and to assuage fears some may have about lifestyles associated with students here.

"Students who think that they won't be able to function financially within this institution because of their background, people that think they won't fit in socially, we want to tell them that is not the case," Mitchell said.

There are still a lot of holes in the AccessUVa program. It does not provide for students to experience a full University experience through joining clubs or studying in the summer or traveling abroad during January Term. These shortcomings ought to be considered as the University expands the program. Universities we would like to think of as "peer institutions" such as Harvard and Yale are on the verge of letting students attend for free. At Harvard, students whose families make less than $60,000 do not pay a cent. They are also eligible for grants that allow them to pursue non-paying internships and free them from their expected contribution for the next year since they did not earn any money the summer before. Of course, our coffers are not anywhere near prepared to offer such a comprehensive program, but we can't just pat ourselves on the back and be content with the programs in place now. By creating an environment that welcomes students from all economic walks of life, the University only betters itself.

Maggie Thornton's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at mthornton@cavalierdaily.com.

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