When the University of Virginia launched AccessUVa, in response to criticism that its student body lacked diversity, the financial aid program was one of the most generous in the nation.
Its aim was to give students outright grants, so that they would not have to enter the work world with a load of debt.
That policy is now changing — also to the tune of criticism.
The Board of Visitors last summer voted to require aid students to take loans of up to $7,000 per year in lieu of grants. The requirement will not affect current recipients but will apply to students entering UVa in 2014 and after.
But faced with the drain of a 264 percent increase in spending, what else could UVa do? The program’s cost to the university went from $11 million in 2004 to about $40 million last year.
UVa isn’t the only school that instituted a generous grant program, only to have to scale it back. Prestigious schools such as Yale, Dartmouth, MIT and Cornell also have found such programs unsustainable.
UVa officials note that even after the shifting some aid from grants to loans, the program’s cost will continue to rise. They simply won’t rise as quickly.
Ironically — but predictably, as these things often go — it is increased need for aid that has caused UVa to reduce the grants.
“At the time AccessUVa was begun,” said President Teresa A. Sullivan, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the growth in the need of the student body. Nobody really foresaw the recession in 2008” (“Sullivan looks to donors to help sustain AccessUVa,” The Daily Progress, Nov. 26 online).
Also ironically, the university is hoping to find more private support for the aid program.
It’s not the first time private donations have helped sustain AccessUVa — the last such fundraising drive was in 2009, and private endowments already account for about $9 million of the program’s costs.
But the irony is that this is yet another area in which UVa is having to rely more heavily on private gifts — in part because state and federal governments have cut their support for financial aid.
It’s a familiar, and depressing story: Reduced aid from government means that universities must cut programs in response, or raise revenues (such as through tuition increases), or find more private support — or employ some combination of these approaches.
And predictably, some students are upset at the changes. We can’t really blame them.
But UVa is somewhat at the mercy of forces beyond its control. The escalating costs of its generous aid program cannot be sustained. It must slow those increases down — so that the program can continue to help students, if not quite as generously, for many years to come.