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Sullivan Pledges to Fulfill Current AccessUVA Commitments During Panel Discussion on Higher Education in Virginia

AccessUVa, the University of Virginia’s nationally recognized financial aid program, will fulfill its obligations to current students despite an ongoing review that could lead to changes in future years, President Teresa A. Sullivan said Tuesday during a panel discussion on higher education issues.

“AccessUVa is very important to us,” Sullivan told a crowd of more than 100 students in Newcomb Hall Ballroom. “Going to a completely homogenous University is not a good preparation for going out into the world of work. We need to bring in students who come here from all kinds of backgrounds, including different kinds of financial backgrounds.”

The comments came during an event organized by the U.Va. branch of Virginia21, a nonpartisan organization of young people age 18 to 26 that focuses on higher education, economic development and good government.

The panel featured Sullivan; Frank Friedman, president of Piedmont Virginia Community College; Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville; and Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave. They fielded questions from students on a range of issues affecting higher education.

Sullivan’s comments on AccessUVa came in response to a question from a third-year student who said that she would not have been able to attend the University without the program and that she worries for its future.

“We’re not going to renege on a promise made to any individual student,” Sullivan said in response. “What you were promised for four years, you’re going to get. What we may have to do going forward is tighten somewhat the restrictions on incoming students, and we’re looking right now at some ways of doing that.”

The Board of Visitors in 2011 commissioned a review of AccessUVa. The review is considering issues such as the changing demographics of financial-aid recipients, in part due to the economic downturn; the rapid rise in the program’s cost; and the uncertain future of federal financial aid.

The University currently spends about $95 million annually on the program, about $40 million of which comes from University resources; the rest comes from state and federal sources, such as Pell grants.

The program has grown more quickly than expected. When it launched, about 24 percent of the student body received some sort of aid. Now, that number is about 34 percent, Sullivan said.

“There are very good reasons for that, such as the recession and the way it hit many families very hard,” Sullivan said.

Sequestration, the mandatory reductions to federal spending required as part of a 2012 federal budget deal, also plays a role, the president said. “We anticipate that some students currently at U.Va. who didn’t need AccessUVa before may be in a situation in which one or more of their parents have had their jobs affected by sequestration.”

Toscano also weighed in on the question, saying it was important for state lawmakers to avoid adding stipulations to higher education funding that required it not be used for financial aid. Landes agreed that funds from the state should generally be left as open-ended as possible.

“Our goal, from the General Assembly’s standpoint, in appropriating dollars for higher education, should be to allow as much autonomy and flexibility as possible,” Landes said.

Such an approach drives efficiencies and allows institutions of higher education to address their own needs, he said.

During the question-and-answer session, the presidents and lawmakers also addressed issues such as how the University might better market itself out of state and how the community college system will face the same challenges confronting four-year schools.

Friedman, the PVCC president, said during the event that the relationship between PVCC and U.Va. is a model for community colleges and public universities nationwide, and that PVCC sends about 100 graduates per year to U.Va.

“We’re very proud that our students do very well here,” he said, noting that PVCC students who go on to U.Va. graduate at the same rate and with the same average grade-point average as students who attend U.Va. all four years.

“Our mission is to educate everyone who can benefit from a college education,” he said.

One of the students who matriculated from PVCC to U.Va. was Brendan Wynn, an undergraduate who is the current president of the U.Va. chapter of Virginia21. Wynn, who helped question the panelists during the event, said afterward that he was pleased with the turnout and the quality of the discussion.

“It was nice to see that so many students were able to ask salient questions,” he said.

Students who were unable to participate can still submit questions by Tweeting them to @Virginia21 with the hashtag #uvapanel.

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