The Plan's Working
File photo / Andrew Shurtleff
By Dan Heuchert
In its first full year, Access-UVa, the University’s innovative financial aid program, is making its mark by increasing the economic diversity of the student body. The progress made with this fall’s entering class reverses a disturbing trend at the University and national levels: a loss of low-income students at the most prestigious institutions of higher education.
As of June 13, 194 students matriculating in fall 2005 met the criteria for a loan-free U.Va. education under the expanded terms of the AccessUVa program — almost triple the 70 all-grant recipients in last year’s entering class, U.Va. officials announced. Additionally, 31 transfer students from the Virginia Community College System, who were eligible for AccessUVa benefits for the first time this year, qualified for all-grant aid packages. That full cost of education — including tuition, fees, expenses and room and board — is valued at $16,500 per year for in-state students and $34,500 per year for out-of-state students.
“U.Va. and the nation did not come to this situation overnight,” said University President John T. Casteen III. “The ongoing deterioration of federal support for Pell Grants, intended to support the neediest students, and our own state’s failure to fund its own calculations of what is called ‘unmet need’ in the state’s budget system — and indeed, the ongoing deterioration of economies in regions of Virginia (such as Southside and Southwest Virginia) where basic industries have left and unemployment has grown to crisis levels — have added up in our time. All of this speaks to distinctive regional differences in family income and parental education levels.
“This problem took a long time to develop. It is more serious than what one sees in many other states, but not different in kind. Many entities will have to work together to solve it, but this is our piece of the solution. We are reaching out to qualified students who are able to succeed here, but do not realize that they can afford U.Va. We are letting them know that we can and will help, and that a first-rate university education is within the reach of any student with the academic background and demonstrated financial need.”
Said John A. Blackburn, dean of admission, “We set out to increase the number of low-income students at the University of Virginia, and we’re doing it.” The University’s goal was to increase the percentage of entering students from low-income backgrounds from 4 percent to 5 percent in the first year; instead, that group will make up 6.2 percent of this fall’s first-year class.
In January 2005, U.Va.’s Board of Visitors expanded AccessUVa’s scope and raised its annual financial commitment to more than $20 million. The family-income threshold for qualifying for all-grant packages was eased from 150 percent of the federal poverty level to 200 percent, an annual income of $37,700 for a family of four.
After AccessUVa was expanded, the Office of Admission extended the application deadline by three weeks to get the word out about the changes, and received 600 more applications for admission. In many cases, student application fees and deposits were waived.
There was a 21.6 percent overall increase in applications from students whose families had incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, from 689 in 2004-2005 to 838 in 2005-2006, including transfer students from the VCCS. Applicants in that pool were offered admission at a rate comparable to last year, but 64 percent accepted admission offers thus far this year, compared to 50 percent last year.
The University launched a statewide publicity campaign that included television and radio public-service announcements and print advertisements featuring actor Sean Patrick Thomas, a U.Va. alumnus and former financial aid recipient. The ads included the tagline, “Got the brains, but not the bucks? The door is open.” Other outreach efforts included targeted mailings to middle and high school guidance counselors and the state’s community colleges. Additional mailings went directly to students, and U.Va.’s Office of Admission increased its visits to schools across Virginia.
Most effective, though, was one-on-one contact with the students. Early in the admissions cycle, staff from the Office of Admission and Student Financial Services carefully reviewed every file, identifying students who appeared likely to qualify for need-based financial aid. One-hundred-thirty received individualized outreach —telephone calls, letters and e-mails informing them about the financial aid process.
Once admission offers were made, Casteen wrote to accepted students with information regarding the opportunities available under AccessUVA. Admissions and financial aid staff worked late into the night, telephoning prospective students to guide them through the financial aid application process. At the “Days on the Lawn” program for admitted students, laptop computer-wielding financial aid officers offered individual counseling. Molly Suling, hired specifically to facilitate the application process for low-income students, maintains a 6-inch-thick (and growing) folder recording contacts with prospective students.
“That is what makes the difference,” said Yvonne Hubbard, director of Student Financial Services. “It’s one student at a time.”
Approximately 70 percent of those offered grants-only packages hail from Virginia, where the most extensive recruiting efforts were focused during the program’s first year. The largest group came from Northern Virginia, Blackburn said.
The number of students who qualify for financial aid this fall is expected to continue inching higher throughout the next several weeks.
This year’s entering class is the first to benefit from the cap on loans for middle-income students. Qualifying enrollees will receive no more than $18,000 in loans over their four years, with the rest of their need being met by grants or work-study programs. Statistics on this group of students are not yet available.
The original AccessUVA announcement came one month after the application deadline, too late to have a substantial impact on last fall’s entering class. Nonetheless, 70 students qualified for all-grant financial aid packages.
The bottom line for this year: The University is increasingly accessible to students from all economic backgrounds.
“The University of Virginia has made the conversation regarding economic diversity in higher education worth having, and we’re showing that it can really happen,” Hubbard said.