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AccessUVa faces

Board places program under review as enrollment grows

In light of the changing environment at the University and in higher education, the Board of Visitors outlined plans for a review of the AccessUVa program at its meeting Friday.

The University faces a new dynamic with administrative turnovers and an expanding student base. Changes in financial aid programs among peer institutions and proposed cuts to federal support have further spurred the review.

"This year is a time for change," said Sean Jenkins, assistant to President Teresa A. Sullivan. "The two major issues to look out for are financial aid and growth."

AccessUVa: A philosophy and a history\nThe AccessUVa program emerged from an effort to guarantee all students access to an undergraduate education at the University, regardless of financial circumstances.

"When you look at financial aid at any institution in the country, whether private or public, the way you operate is really a reflection of institutional goals and philosophy," Student Financial Services Director Yvonne Hubbard said.

The University's philosophies and goals were established in the Board of Visitors' 2004 resolution to adopt AccessUVa and are similar to those at comparable schools like the University of California, Berkeley, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Brown, Hubbard said.

The University accepts students and then works to make sure they are able to attend, she said. This differs from the strategy of smaller schools, which use merit-based incentives to attract applicants, Hubbard explained.

The implementation of AccessUVa consisted of four principles: The financial aid program would meet 100 percent of all demonstrated financial need, would provide qualifying undergraduate students with family income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level with grants instead of need-based loans, would do the same for "for undergraduate students at all income levels, beyond a cumulative loan cap" and would establish a new comprehensive educational program for students and parents about issues related to financial aid.

Hubbard called the formation of AccessUVa an evolutionary process. The University began putting money into need-based financial aid in the 1980s, which grew into meeting all lowest-income needs in the 1990s, she said.

To attract accepted low-income students to the University, Student Financial Services awarded grants, allowing students to avoid accumulating debt from federal loans.

Worries about financing an education became a factor not only for low-income families sending students to college, but also for middle-income families, however. Student Financial Services saw more and more middle-income families borrowing through subsidized loans.

As a result, Student Financial Services began awarding grants to middle-income families as well. "In the academic year 2000-2001, we started meeting need for everyone," Hubbard said.

By meeting full need, the office hoped to help families borrow less and thereby mine their own resources. "We can't control how much a parent might borrow, and we can't control what kids do with credit cards, and we can't control private loans, but what we can control is how much we're lending to meet need," Hubbard said.

Need-based borrowing through AccessUVa declined briefly for a few years, but numbers are rising again because of the economy, Hubbard said.

Economic uncertainty has also driven some relatively stable families to look to loans.

In many cases, families with assets or a steady income had students take loans out so as not to commit funds in case something happened economically, Hubbard added.

With new University leadership and an economy in flux, AccessUVa is constantly under review as officials try to best adapt the program to shifting needs.

"We have new management, a new president, [and] economic situations that are very different from seven years ago," Hubbard said. "[AccessUVa] is a living entity. We always are looking at it."

Program assessment\nAccessUVa was phased in during four years with each new class and has grown substantially in cost, said Colette Sheehy, vice president for management and budget.

Yoke San Reynolds, University vice president and chief financial officer, described the program as it exists today as being "under fiscal pressures," and acknowledged an increase in share paid out of the University's unrestricted resources. "It is important to achieve the right balance as we consider AccessUVa going forward," she said.

Reynolds suggested the Board look at links between tuition and financial aid and the effect on admissions, retention and other strategic academic goals.

The percent of the student body qualifying for aid has increased from 24 percent during the five-year period prior before implementation to a projected 33 percent this year, Sheehy said.

"[AccessUVa] moves to meet the needs of students and the school," Hubbard said. Some students qualify for aid mid-college, something Hubbard attributed to the economic downturn.

"The number of students on aid reflects [that] some students ... came here and didn't need assistance to be here, and their family situations changed," she said.

AccessUVa was able to help these students stay in school, so the program is "not just about getting students here," she said. "It's really about retention and persistence and success in graduation."

The demonstrated increase in need along with rising tuition prices has put "an additional burden" on the financing of AccessUVa, Sheehy said.

As a result, the rector and vice rector have formed a special committee to lead a review, and Vice Rector Mark Kington invited all members to be involved if they're willing to commit the time.

Special committee members include the chairs of the finance, external affairs, diversity, student affairs and educational policy committees as well as John Nau and Jonathan Overdevest, the student representative to the Board.

An outside consulting firm to be determined by the end of this month, the Board's appointed Special Committee and administrative staff support will conduct a holistic assessment and submit recommendations in context of tuition setting at the April board meeting.

Final program recommendations plan to be implemented for the entering class of 2014.

Calculating need\nThe University also offers its own personal touch in administering aid.

"What we do with AccessUVa is we let all other places that could possibly fund the student come in first," Hubbard said.

Of the two methodologies used for determining demonstrated financial need, AccessUVa uses the institutional model, like most other institutions of higher education, rather than the federal model, Hubbard said.

Throughout the past few years, the federal government has worked to simplify the FAFSA in hopes of encouraging more low-income students to apply, but this approach has its flaws. "The federal formula doesn't take as much of the income and assets of a family into consideration," Hubbard said, meaning substantial income or assets a family has available can go unnoticed. Universities which have substantial institutional financial aid - like the University, Duke, Harvard and others - use supplemental forms to gather additional information.

Looking forward\nOn the federal level, Pell Grants have been threatened, especially during the debt-ceiling debate. A number of other programs, private scholarships included, are at risk as well.

The state is examining need-based financial aid in conjunction with the Higher Education Commission convened by the governor last year. A decline in state or federal funds has a direct effect on AccessUVa, Hubbard said.

The total annual cost of AccessUVa has risen from just under $30 million in its inaugural year to more than $92 million in the current academic year, which includes both institutional funds and funds from other sources. "With the program's cost rising faster as other sources of revenues grow more slowly, AccessUVa requires a larger portion of tuition revenue every year and competes with other important strategic objectives of the University like faculty hiring for scarce unrestricted funds," University spokesperson Carol Wood said in an email.

The Board originally had committed institutional funds of $16 million annually to AccessUVa, Wood said. Now, some seven-and-a-half years later, annual institutional funds will more than double, reaching $38.3 million for the 2011-12 academic year, she added.

Many of the governor's priorities align well with the University's vision. But to fulfill these common goals, the University must have adequate need-based financial aid among other things to serve the new students and protect the quality of the undergraduate experience, Sullivan recently said.

"We will need to work together with the governor and members of the General Assembly to ensure appropriate state funding for the additional Virginians we will serve," Sullivan added in regard to undergraduate growth and associated financial need.


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