After Five Years, AccessUVa is Successful - and Increasingly Essential

May 22, 2009 — In the five years since the University of Virginia unveiled its AccessUVa financial aid plan, two things have become clear.

First, it's working. Qualified applicants are seeing that money need not prevent them from getting a U.Va. education. The University is enrolling a more economically diverse student body. The University's culture is changing.

Second, it's expensive. Total need-based aid to U.Va. undergraduates rose from $37 million in 2003-04 to $59.1 million during the just-concluded academic year, and some are forecasting that the number may top $73 million in 2009-10. And while some of those funds will come from federal, state and other outside sources, the share paid from University funds and endowments has more than doubled over the last six years, from $14.1 million to $31.3 million.

The real story of the program's success, however, is told by the students whose lives have been changed.

Students like Mallory Dunn, a 2009 graduate from Lynchburg. Though she was admitted to U.Va. as a high school senior, she thought she might have to attend a community college for a few years while she pulled together the finances for a four-year university.

Then she learned about AccessUVa when she attended a Days on the Lawn event. "I went on a tour and my mother talked to a financial aid officer who told her that U.Va. would pay for everything," Dunn recalled. "We would have no out-of-pocket expenses.

"We walked away elated. We were skipping the rest of the day."

Or students like Portia Henry, a rising fourth-year from Hampton Roads. As a high school sophomore, she started working nights and weekends as a drug-store cashier to help her family; by her senior year, she was working two jobs. Yet she was a good enough student to be admitted to all nine of the colleges she applied to, including U.Va. But could she afford to attend?

Yes, came the answer. "When I heard that I had a full scholarship at U.Va., it was one of the happiest days of my life," she said. "I knew I had a good high school record, a lot of extra-curriculars. But without AccessUVa, I couldn't come here."

Unveiled in February 2004 and rolled out in phases, AccessUVa is the University's financial aid program. It includes four components:

• Financial aid packages that meet 100 percent of need for all qualified undergraduates;
• Elimination of loans for low-income students, defined as coming from backgrounds with family income at 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level;
• A cap on need-based loans for all students at 25 percent of the anticipated four-year, in-state cost of attendance; and
• A financial literacy and debt-management program for students and families.

The program's ultimate goals are not only to remove financial obstacles from prospective students' paths to U.Va., but also to enable them to participate fully in the undergraduate experience and, upon graduation, to consider graduate school, public service careers or even volunteering, options that would be less attractive if college debt were burdensome.

Yvonne Hubbard, director of Student Financial Services, said that AccessUVa is meeting those goals – and changing the University, too. Faculty and administrators are more conscious about ensuring opportunities are available to every student, regardless of income. Admissions officers are slower to toss aside the applications of students who don't have long lists of extra-curricular activities, realizing that the necessity of holding part-time jobs may prevent some students from joining the marching band. Classroom discussions benefit from the insights of those less privileged.

After years of intense outreach and marketing, including sending current students and recent graduates to high schools to let prospective students know about the opportunities U.Va. offers, the University reversed a slow decline in the number of students with financial aid packages.

In the years since AccessUVa was introduced, the number of students with some financial need has increased by 15.3 percent, to almost 27 percent of the student body in the most recent academic year. And the need-based aid awarded per enrolled student has also swelled, from $2,895 in 2004-05 to $4,146 in 2008-09.

The number of U.Va. students who receive federal Pell Grants – a point of comparison used nationally – has increased by 22.7 percent since 2005-06. Seventy percent of aid recipients are Virginia residents.

U.Va.'s progress has not been a matter of finding some needy students, giving them a full ride and throwing them into the academic deep end. Rather than relaxing standards, admissions officers have more aggressively recruited qualified students from low-income backgrounds.

During its first year, however, AccessUVa's advisory committee met to review the retention rates of students at another university with a similar aid program. The data were discouraging; the low-income students were struggling, not making the grades predicted by their high school records. The University didn't want to wait until there was a problem, and quickly created the Rainey Academic Program, a summer transition program for selected AccessUVA recipients to help them adjust to college and get some academic credits under their belts.

In May, the first Rainey Academic Program students graduated from U.Va. Kyle Mihalcoe of Richmond was one of them.

"I got here the first day for the Rainey program, and instantly saw that the social bubble that I felt like I was on the outside of when I visited had completely disintegrated," he said.

Mihalcoe formed a network of friends not only with the other students in the program, but also with the older students in his classes. He got a feel for the academic workload. His contacts with faculty and administrators instilled a sense of pride and ownership toward the University. When late August came and 13,000 students arrived on Grounds, Kyle was already well-established. In fact, he was able to help fellow first-years find their way around.

The results have borne out the wisdom of that approach. Despite lacking the same resources to prepare for college as their wealthier classmates, students receiving all-grant AccessUVa packages on average accumulate credit hours at a faster clip than their classmates, are retained at similar rates year-to-year, and have only marginally lower grade-point averages.

There is little to stigmatize financial-aid recipients at U.Va. In fact, students formed their own group, 'Hoos for Open Access, in part to help spread the University's welcome and increase the on-Grounds profile of students receiving financial aid.

AccessUVa participants are largely indistinguishable from their peers. They participate in the same activities while here; upon graduation, they seem to pursue similar paths. A recent survey of 2009 graduates found that, in fact, more high-need students said they were likely to be doing volunteer work next fall than students with no financial need.

Hubbard recently attended a dinner for graduating AccessUVa students, and the talk inevitably turned to post-graduation plans. "This one's going to New York to be a cantor, and this one's going to be an engineer at this place, and this one's going to Teach for America, and this one wants to be a psychiatrist and is going to med school someplace," she recalled. "They're like every other bunch of kids at the University. They're very diverse. But they needed help to be here."

With the recession throwing people out of work and in some cases halving their college savings, that need is only increasing for incoming and returning students.

"We're seeing a lot of our middle-income folks, who received a little bit of financial aid, now needing more help because their income changed," Hubbard said.

Greg Roberts, U.Va.'s dean of admission, is witnessing the recession's effects firsthand as he makes recruiting trips.

"I hear some truly heartbreaking stories every week during my travels," he said. "So many Americans have lost their jobs or have seen their retirement and college savings plans dwindle.

"When I mention our AccessUVa program, you can see their faces light up. The growth in this program's reputation the last five years has been nothing short of amazing."

But as the need grows, funding must keep pace. Hubbard has requested $30 million in institutional support for AccessUVa from the University's operating budget for the coming year, up from the $22.9 million the program received last year – and that amount was more than twice what was spent before the dawn of AccessUVa. It doesn't include payouts from endowments supporting the program, which have also more than doubled since the 2003-04 school year.

U.Va. President John T. Casteen III said the Board of Visitors remains committed to AccessUVa, and is seeking ways to keep it funded.

"AccessUVa is a huge commitment, but one that could not have been timelier in its creation if the Board had known that a recession was coming," Casteen writes in the summer edition of the University of Virginia Magazine. "We fund it with revenue from gifts, from various endowments designated for need-based financial aid, from profits or excess reserves in any number of University units that receive external revenue – the bookstore, for example – and from internal reallocations.

"Like most public universities, we are required to allocate funds for need-based aid from both diminished state appropriations and the tuition fund. Probably all colleges have roughly this mix of sources for financial aid.

"The difference here is that the Rector and Visitors have made raising funds for AccessUVa and squeezing sufficient funds from existing sources our top priority, especially during this recession."

This summer, the University will launch a fund-raising campaign for AccessUVa to boost financial aid endowments. Already, an AccessUVa endowment created as a tribute to the late Dean of Admission John A. "Jack" Blackburn has received more than $1.8 million in gifts – a fitting tribute to a man recognized as one of the architects and champions of AccessUVa.

Casteen noted during Finals Weekend that some members of the class of 2009 had designated their class gifts to AccessUVA.

Remaining affordable for all students is part of the fiber of the University's mission – as envisioned by Thomas Jefferson – to educate the citizenry as a basis for participating in a democratic republic.

In an 1818 letter to Joseph C. Cabell, Jefferson wrote, "A system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest … will be the latest of all the public concerns in which I shall permit myself to take an interest."

— by Dan Heuchert