Does the University of Virginia care that it is one of the least socioeconomically diverse colleges in the nation? Is it embarrassed that it lags only slightly behind the University of Delaware in enrolling the smallest share of Pell Grant recipients among public universities?
Apparently not, as UVa is starting to backtrack from its one and only major effort to attract financially needy students to the campus. In August, the university’s board voted to end its much-heralded no-loan policy for low-income students starting in 2014.
At issue is ACCESSUVa, a program that the university started about a decade ago that covers the full financial need of students with family incomes equivalent to 200 percent of the poverty line (about $47,000 for a family of four) or less solely through grant aid and work study.
But what did university officials expect would happen when they started the program? That it wouldn’t work? That they would get good PR without having to spend a lot of money?
ACCESSUVa has succeeded in making the campus somewhat more diverse. Since the program’s start in 2004, the proportion of students eligible for need-based aid from the university has grown from 24 percent to 33 percent. And the share of the student body that is low income has risen from 6.5 percent to 8.9 percent, the university reports.
The program appears to be a victim of its own success. As ACCESSUVa has become more popular, the program’s costs have grown – from about $12 million in 2004 to more than $40 million today. University officials and board members say that this type of growth is “unsustainable” and that changes are needed to make the program less generous by requiring even the neediest students to take on debt.
But what did university officials expect would happen when they started the program? That it wouldn’t work? That they would get good PR without having to spend a lot of money? You can’t achieve socioeconomic diversity on the cheap.
As my friend Mary Nguyen Barry of The Education Trust has written, UVA is one of the richest public universities in the country, with a $5 billion endowment and a $1.4 billion operating budget. Surely it can find room in its budget for the program.
But even if cuts are necessary, it’s hard to believe that there aren’t other parts of the university’s budget that can be trimmed. According to data the school provided the College Board, 9 percent of freshmen had no financial need yet received “merit” scholarships from UVa in 2011-12, with an average award of about $10,500. Is providing financial aid to wealthy students who don’t need it, while taking away aid from low-income students who do need it, really the best use of the university’s resources?
What this ultimately comes down to is a question of priorities. If university officials want to make the campus more socioeconomically diverse, as they claim, then they need to reverse course and leave ACCESSUVa in place just as it is.