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Voices for AccessUVa holds protest

Former Rector Helen Dragas joins students in opposition to AccessUVa changes

As the Board of Visitors convened inside the Rotunda Friday, another gathering was going on outside on the steps: a group of students gathered to protest the recent changes to AccessUVa, the University’s financial aid program.

Citing the ballooning costs of AccessUVa, the board voted during the summer to abolish all-grant financial aid and replace portions of that aid with federally subsidized loans. Beginning with next year’s class of 2018, students will now receive up to $14,000 for loans for in-state students and $28,000 for out-of-state students. These changes are expected to save $6 million per year.

The event was organized by Voices for AccessUVa, a student-led initiative to convince the Board to restore AccessUVa’s all-grant aid to students from the lowest income bracket. Third-year Batten student Heather Berg said University administrators should focus on the people behind the numbers.

“Our goal is to get students informed about what the changes are, and hopefully mobilize a response,” Berg said.

Event organizer Hajar Ahmed, a fourth-year College student, highlighted the contrast between the University’s high academic rankings and what she said was the inability of low-income students to attend the school relative to other universities.

“For many low income students, U.Va. will simply become unaffordable,” Ahmed said. “Disguising loans as aid to the poorest of the poor is despicable.”

During the rally, several students shared their experiences with AccessUVa and how important it has been in their lives. Third-year College student Hawa Ahmed was among those who shared their story. She said AccessUVa offered her a chance to go to college she never would have had otherwise.

“This is a step in the wrong direction,” Ahmed said. “Many poor students come from families already drowning in debt.”

Fourth-year College student Einass Abdelmoula was among the students in the crowd who was not personally benefited by the program. “I don’t have personal experience with AccessUVa, but I’m here for solidarity with my fellow U.Va. students,” she said.

Board member Helen Dragas, who was one of only two Board members to vote against the change to the program, said the University had a commitment to its least well-off students.

“I wish I could articulate it as well as your colleagues just did,” Dragas said. “I think our mission at the University of Virginia is affordable excellence, it is access to the best education we can provide in this state for all Virginians, regardless of family income or wealth — and that extends beyond the boundaries of the Commonwealth as well. I voted against the change because I felt like [AccessUVa] is such a core, mission-driven program that needed to be sustained.”