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Accumulating interest

The University should restore all-grant aid for low-income students

Protests against cuts to AccessUVa took on a second wind this week.

More than three months after the Board of Visitors voted to eliminate all-grant aid for low-income students, University administrators sat down with students at a Monday evening town hall meeting in Newcomb Theater.

The next day, Student Council unanimously passed a resolution urging the Board to include a return to all-grant aid in the University’s strategic plan. University officials will present the strategic plan — a blueprint for the University’s next five years — to the Board Thursday and Friday.

Calls to restore all-grant aid never went away. But this week’s Board meetings give students a chance to ensure that University leadership takes note of lingering discontent with the changes to AccessUVa.

AccessUVa’s re-entrance into University-wide conversation shows that the cuts to all-grant aid will not be a matter of fleeting interest. Students’ memories are short. But an institutional apparatus — most notably United Students for Undergraduate Socieconomic Diversity and the “I am not a loan” campaign — has already sprung into being. The blow to AccessUVa affects enough people — an estimated 335 low-income students in the first year of implementation — to hold students’ attention.

Yet students are concerned with the cuts not only because the policy change makes their peers’ lives harder. The elimination of all-grant aid also sends a powerful message — and the wrong one, at least for a university that prides itself on “affordable access” and frequently points to its standing as a top “best value” school. The reduction to AccessUVa support occurs alongside signs of opulence: most damningly, a $12.4 million squash court at the Boar’s Head Inn, which opened in April, paid for largely by an alumnus of the Commerce School. The University justified the venture in part by insisting that the facility would help attract new students. The high-profile investment in a traditionally upper-class pastime, followed by a more high-profile disinvestment in the University’s neediest students, sends a disheartening message about what kinds of students the University hopes to entice.

This tension — between, on the one hand, the presence of wealth, and, on the other hand, the desire to serve as a school for the public, a stepping-stone for the talented and disadvantaged — will play out at the University for the foreseeable future. For this reason, interest in AccessUVa — much like the interest on the loans low-income students will now be obliged to take out — will continue to accrue.

This issue will not go away. Nor should it. What the Board and the University should realize is that the decision to eliminate all-grant aid is not irrevocable.

We want to resist the too-easy calculus that says that because the AccessUVa grants are a tiny fraction of the University’s operating budget, the school can restore them easily. We sympathize with the difficulties that come with balancing a budget. But AccessUVa should be a top budget priority. The cuts affect our most vulnerable peers. They also cast a shadow over the University’s claims to serve the public.

Be it a targeted push for alumni donations or merely a decision to build one less superfluous facility, there must be a way to affirm the University’s commitment to financial aid without turning its pockets inside-out. We encourage the Board and the University’s leaders to restore funding to AccessUVa as soon as possible. We also urge students to continue constructive dialogue with administrators and faculty. Attending Board meetings this week is one way students can make their concerns heard.

Students who wish to relay concerns to the Board via the body’s student representative, fourth-year College student Blake Blaze, should email him at beb3ez@virginia.edu.

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