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The Board of Visitors' elimination of all-grant aid packages marks a step in the wrong direction

At a time when college costs are rising and economic uncertainty poses additional challenges to already low-income families, the Board of Visitors’ decision to scale back AccessUVA for the University’s most needy students is—at best—a step in the wrong direction. At worst, it threatens to put an end to the program’s loftiest goals, as envisioned by the late Dean of Admissions John Blackburn and former University President John T. Casteen III.

We all know times are tough, and rising financial aid costs—much like costs for employee pensions and healthcare in the business world—are an area the University’s accountants will want to scrutinize. But rather than taking a truly comprehensive approach to dealing with these costs, the Board’s decision places the most blame on those who can least afford it, and who, in all honesty, compose the smallest proportion of students who qualify for AccessUVA in the first place.

This is not just a matter of increased cost for low-income students—it’s that it fundamentally changes the dynamic of AccessUVA from one that enables to one that merely supports.

That is no small difference, and I say it as someone who had the extraordinary opportunity to attend the University as an out-of-state student despite falling into the lowest family income bracket my first year. I can say with absolute certainty that I would not be in the place I am today without AccessUVA, because its all-grant aid package provided me a chance to overcome any limitations solely attributable to financial circumstance.

In other words, it leveled the playing field. Though the amount of all-grant aid I received decreased each year after as my mother found stable employment, I still only needed to take on an additional $12-15,000 in loans after accounting for merit scholarships and other sources. Only two or three years after graduation, those loans were paid off—a dream few low-income students around the country can hope to realize without programs like a robust, well-funded AccessUVA.

I sincerely believe that this leveling of the playing field was what Blackburn and Casteen had in mind for the program—to provide a leg up and to keep alive a sort of American dream. And though it wasn’t something I frequently brought up on Grounds—after all, family financials can be embarrassing amid considerable socioeconomic inequality—the tremendous benefit of AccessUVA was to me a sign of the University’s forward-thinking generosity. The University was not just a place where some people could pay to go to school, but a place where even the lowest-income earners could aspire to compete with anyone in the country.

Perhaps most disheartening, though, is the manner in which these changes were presented. As someone who makes their living doing public relations in a corporate lobbying office, I’ve seen my fair share of audacious messaging. But McGregor McCance’s press release and the accompanying quotes (surely written by the Office of Public Affairs) strikes new ground. Should we really be cheering the reauthorization of a weakened program? And are smart, capable University students and alumni really supposed to buy in to the idea of “moderating costs” as anything more than a clever turn of phrase? Most damning of all are the very statistics cited by the University as a reason to overhaul the program:

“During AccessUVa’s first year, 24 percent of U.Va.’s undergraduate students qualified for need-based aid. Today, that proportion is approximately 33 percent … And the percentage of low-income students increased from 6.5 percent to 8.9 percent of undergraduates.”

Many factors could explain this increase in students qualifying for need-based aid, like the recession and a tough labor market, but has anyone stopped to wonder whether this increase is a good thing? Wasn’t that the whole point—to increase the socioeconomic diversity of students on Grounds? To draw more low-income students?

So we’re going to change something, because it might be working?

Real financial pressures aside, this recent decision shows that this Board has learned nothing from last year’s presidential debacle. By sacrificing our ideals and failing to devise a more innovative solution to long-term AccessUVA funding, we’ve guaranteed a program that falls well short of its original intentions.

Thomas Madrecki is a 2010 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences, and served as managing editor of The Cavalier Daily from 2009-10. He is currently the President of The Cavalier Daily Alumni Association.


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