At what cost?: Bewildering financial aid changes have left UVA students in the lurch

Many UVA students are questioning why their financial aid has been slashed just a few weeks before the start of the fall semester. PC: Jack Looney Many UVA students are questioning why their financial aid has been slashed just a few weeks before the start of the fall semester. PC: Jack Looney

By Sydney Halleman

The University of Virginia is sticking with its plan to allow students back on Grounds September 8, two weeks later than its initial August 25 start day—though many students are facing a virtual fall semester with significantly less financial aid than in previous years.

Sean Dudley, a rising fourth-year, decided to continue college at his parents’  house in Midlothian due to the concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. When Dudley checked his financial aid status on August 15, he found that he had an outstanding balance of around $2,900 that was due less than a month later.

Abby Keats noticed that her aid had been reduced by roughly $4,000, leaving her with an outstanding balance of $817. Her previous financial package had remained unchanged since June, and the most recent change had come without warning.

“My main issue with this is that it was done last minute with no prior knowledge of it happening,” Keats says.

On August 17, some students were greeted with an email from Student Financial Services indicating that their aid package had been modified. Carolyn, a fourth-year, logged on right away and found her financial aid package empty. She called SFS and was put on hold. She was the 54th person in line, and waited for over three hours to speak to a representative. C-VILLE Weekly spoke with 11 students who reported their financial aid packages had been significantly reduced without notice.

The reductions likely stem from an August 5 survey that asked current students about their plans to return to Grounds. The email, sent by Dean of Students Allen Groves, did not indicate that the survey might result in changes to financial aid.

Students choosing not to return to Charlottesville or student dorms were given the option to select between “living at home with financial costs,” and living at home “without cost.” Many students, including Dudley, chose the “without cost” option, because he wasn’t paying rent. But Dudley acknowledges that, even if he didn’t have to pay rent, his family would accrue additional charges, like increased utility bills.

Colleges and universities are required by federal guidelines to factor in housing costs when calculating financial aid allowances. “The cost of attendance for students may change, as required by federal regulations, since they may no longer have housing or travel costs and will have a reduced student fee,” says UVA spokesman Brian Coy. “This reduced cost of attendance will be why some students see a reduced financial aid award.”

Even so, some students were specifically told that they would not have a reduction in financial aid, regardless of their housing situation. Another UVA student, who did not want to disclose their name, sent a message to SFS asking for confirmation that they wouldn’t be charged for on-Grounds housing if they decided to live at home due to COVID-19.

“Financial aid does not change whether you live in UVA housing or not,” the email response from SFS states. “We utilize the estimated amounts in the cost of attendance when calculating financial aid.”

Two months later, the student’s financial aid was reduced by $8,000, then amended to a reduction of $4,000, after they chose to stay at home.

“The entire process has been horrible,” the student says. “I had to wait for about two hours on the phone in order to finally be able to talk to someone. SFS, on the whole, has been very quiet about every-thing and have made few public announcements so I learned much from my friends and other people on Reddit.”

Just the week before, some students had experienced unrelated errors in their financial aid packages, which were then corrected over the weekend of August 15-16. At press time, other students still have not received their financial aid package for the fall semester.

Coy recommends that those affected by the confusion modify their response to the August 5 survey to “living at home with cost,” or email to change their housing status.

Some students, like Dudley, received more financial aid after battling with SFS. “I still wanted to say that it was ridiculous that UVA made me jump through all these hoops and lied to me about certain things,” he says.

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Daniel de la Pointe

Wow, that’s terrible. I’m sure this type of occurrence isn’t limited to UVA. It would be interesting to read UVA’s counterargument. Of course, that is only if they’re willing to reveal it to the public. Hopefully this article will elicit a response.

Great reporting.