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As students protest, UVa board discusses AccessUVa's changes, future

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Posted: Friday, September 20, 2013 8:59 pm | Updated: 11:30 am, Tue Dec 31, 2013.

As University of Virginia Board of Visitors members sat inside the Rotunda for a second day of meetings, students crowded the steps outside to protest financial aid cuts approved by the board last month.

Students representing various activist groups criticized the decision to scale back grants to low-income students under the school’s AccessUVa program. The group sent board members a copy of a petition, signed by more than 8,000 people, calling on the university to restore the aid, which previously covered costs for undergraduates from families with incomes of up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline.

The board approved the change during its August retreat, a few weeks before the beginning of the school year, as a means to rein in the program’s soaring costs.

Fourth-year student Hajar Ahmed, one of the organizers of the protest, said the changes would have a disparate impact on underrepresented minorities and keep low-income students from attending out of fear of taking on debt. Those students instead would be forced to take out loans to pay for part of their education.

“This is the wrong change at the wrong time,” said Ahmed, who is also vice president of the Multicultural Greek Council.

The cost of AccessUVa has quadrupled since its creation in 2004. One of the major drivers of that growth was the “no loans” policy, which relied on grants to cover tuition and fees for low-income students. The board voted to replace $7,000 of grant aid per student annually with loans, which could save the university up to $6 million a year by 2018, when all of the students under the current plan are expected to have graduated.

Next year’s class will be the first affected by the changes.

Many of the students at Friday’s protest were upset with the way the board made the decision, passing the measure when school wasn’t in session. Student leaders said they weren’t warned about the plans.

Katy Hutto, a third-year student who heads United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity, said she heard “rumors” last year of cuts to AccessUVa, but administration officials assured her the program was safe. The changes caught her totally off-guard, she said.

“I have as much a problem with the way the decision was made as the decision itself,” she said.

Ahmed was part of a group of students and alumni that met with Rector George Keith Martin and UVa Chief Operating Officer Pat Hogan on Thursday morning. Martin and Hogan were willing to listen to their concerns, she said, but they were firm in their decision.

“They don’t believe the issue should be revisited,” Ahmed said. “We’re hoping they’ll open up.”

Martin acknowledged that he met with students, but declined to comment further.

New board member Kevin J. Fay, who cast one of two dissenting votes on the AccessUVa changes last month, brought it up during a meeting of the full board Friday afternoon.

Fay suggested forming a special committee to look for other ways to make AccessUVa sustainable.

“Because of the importance of this to the student body and the importance to how it reflects on us as an institution, I just think it needs to have a little additional effort [from us],” he said.

Helen E. Dragas, who also voted against the cuts, said the decision was made too quickly. She asked if there was a way to put off the changes, scheduled to start next fall, while the board looked for alternatives.

“Maybe there’s a way to find some funding to defer this incoming class’s aid, even if it’s just for Virginians,” Dragas said.

Vice Rector William H. Goodwin Jr. said he wouldn’t back down on the decision, but the financial aid program should be considered as the university charts its strategic plan.

Board member Victoria Harker, who worked on the AccessUVa changes in committee, said she wouldn’t feel comfortable rolling back the plan in a “one-off decision” after spending a year putting it together.

“It’s not respectful of the time and effort that went into the process,” Harker said.

Either way, Fay said, the board will need to look at more changes to AccessUVa moving forward.

“The decision we made in August didn’t make AccessUVa sustainable. It’s a short-term Band-Aid that reduces costs for the next few years,” he said.

Martin said he’d take Fay’s suggestions “under advisement.”

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