Tuition spike: Sudden increase in UVA’s sticker price sparks protest

(Left to right) My-Anh Nguyen, Jake Turner, Claire Wyatt, Laura Cross and John Sylvester protest UVA’s tuition hike on Wednesday, March 25. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto (Left to right) My-Anh Nguyen, Jake Turner, Claire Wyatt, Laura Cross and John Sylvester protest UVA’s tuition hike on Wednesday, March 25. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Last week, the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors approved a plan to increase tuition and fees for incoming first-years by 11 percent, a hike that will largely go to pay for grants to lower-income students. The plan’s engineers say it aims to put a UVA education within reach of those Virginians who can least afford it, but the vote has sparked protest on Grounds from students and others who say the University is edging closer to a funding model that looks more and more like those embraced by private colleges.

John Griffin, the Board of Visitors member who helped develop the new “Affordable Excellence” funding model as chair of a finance subcommittee, explained the approach in an interview last week. All in-state students face a 3.6 percent increase in tuition and fees next year—an additional $470. Out-of-state students will see a 3.7 percent hike. A similar increase for all will come the following year, raises Griffin said are approximately equal to the expected higher ed inflation rate plus an additional 1 percent.

Those increases are intended to cover the normal growing costs of education. One example, said Griffin: the heightened security and expensive legal review rolled out in the wake of the controversial Rolling Stone story on campus sexual assault that detailed a now debunked account of a gang rape at a UVA fraternity house.

“The University is investing heavily in student safety,” said Griffin, and has hired attorneys to examine and interpret the federal gender discrimination laws that mandate schools’ obligations to prevent assaults. “It’s costly,” he said.

Separate from the across-the-board ratcheting-up are two big jumps for the next two classes of incoming in-state students. Virginians matriculating at UVA in the fall of 2015 will pay an extra $1,000, and those entering in 2016 will shell out another $1,000 on top of that. The “step increases,” as the Board calls them, will mean that in less than two years, in-state first-years will see a sticker price for tuition and fees that’s 22 percent higher than that paid by students who enrolled last fall.

The plan approved last week by UVA’s Board of Visitors will increase incoming in-state undergraduate tuition and fees at the University by more than 22 percent over two years.
The plan approved last week by UVA’s Board of Visitors will increase incoming in-state undergraduate tuition and fees at the University by more than 22 percent over two years.

Griffin said the money will go toward lowering loan caps for students with demonstrated financial need: The maximum debt load for the poorest students—those with family incomes up to twice the federal poverty line, who currently make up 8.6 percent of in-state undergraduates—will be set at $4,000. For those determined to have some need, the cap will be $18,000. Altogether, more than a third of UVA students will see their maximum debt load drop, including current students.

The new financing structure partially reverses a dramatic scaling back of AccessUVA, the University’s financial aid program, that took place two years ago. The program was launched with great fanfare in 2004, and made a zero-loan promise to low-income in-state students, meaning the school essentially ate the cost of their entire education. But then the economy took a dive. The number of students qualifying for big aid packages rose dramatically, and by 2013, University leaders were calling AccessUVA unsustainable. The board voted that year to require even its lowest-income students to take out $14,000 in loans.

The plan approved by the board last week strikes something of a compromise—one paid for with tuition hikes applied across the board, but ultimately largely borne by students who don’t qualify for aid. The so-called “high tuition, high aid” model has long been embraced by private universities, but Griffin balked at applying the term to what UVA is doing. Yes, out-of-state tuition is high, he said, but the in-state tuition paid by 70 percent of students is on par with peer public institutions.

“We just thought it was a great trade-off,” Griffin said of the two $1,000 step increases faced by incoming students over the next two years. “It’s not a huge increase.”

And at the same time it’s upping tuition, the University is redoubling its efforts to shore up AccessUVA, said Griffin, launching a commitment to raising $1 billion for the program’s endowment. The payout would cover much of the grant aid going forward, he said.

The plan enjoyed wide support on the board, but there was one notable no vote. Former Rector Helen Dragas criticized the plan and the process by which the board adopted it.

“We need to give the public reasonable time for input and I don’t think we’ve done that,” she said.

Among the most vocal critics of the increase are the activists of UVA Students United, whose members slammed the board for a decision they say was made without transparency.

The new plan was announced just days before it was approved, leaving students no chance to respond, said fourth-year Gregory Lewis. Student activists did their best to make their voices heard anyway, taking turns sitting in and holding up signs while the Board of Visitors discussed the tuition hike last Tuesday in its usual meeting room in UVA’s Small Special Collections Library. But when protesters returned for day two of board meetings, Lewis said they found themselves locked out of the building, which was guarded by armed University police officers.

UVA spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said UVA administrators and police decided to limit access on the second day “to avoid over-crowding,” and offered tickets to open sessions on a first-come, first-served basis. He confirmed that the University had closed the building to the public during the board’s closed sessions.

Students said they weren’t informed of the change.

“When we asked what the justification for closing the entire library was, we got no response,” said UVA Students United member Londeka Mthethwa in an e-mail.

What would they have said had they been able to weigh in?

“The model doesn’t make sense on the surface,” said Lewis. “If you want to make UVA cheaper, you lower tuition.”

A high tuition, high aid plan will lower the debt burden for some students, he said, but when that’s been tried at other schools —he points to the University of Michigan as an example—it’s resulted in fewer poor and minority students enrolling, not more.

“It works out well for the low-income students who get in, but there’s a disincentive for the University to let in more low-income students,” he said.

And he’s not convinced that the plan to boost AccessUVA with a giving campaign will work. “They have no real plan or concrete steps that they’re going to take to make this commitment,” Lewis said. “Two years ago we had huge cuts in AccessUVA. There’s nothing that would stop them from doing the same thing in a year or two.”

Experts say critics have reason to be skeptical.

Michelle Cooper is the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a D.C.-based think tank. She said there are good reasons to be wary of public schools embracing a model that raises tuition in order to fund discounts for needy students.

“To your lowest-income families, the sticker shock phenomenon can have a very big effect,” she said, and can actually keep people from applying to college at all. “They immediately opt out and say, ‘I can’t afford to go there.’”

As public institutions like UVA see their state aid shrink, they should be focused on making cuts so they can operate within their means, she said, instead of trying to play games with grants and loan caps.

“If you keep increasing tuition, financial aid will never be able to keep up,” Cooper said. “It will always be chasing the tail of rising tuition and fees.”

UVA is walking an especially tight line, said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, because it’s trying to uphold its elite reputation and simultaneously fulfill its obligation to serve a broader public mission, all in the face of diminishing state support. Public schools that embrace a high tuition, high aid model are trying to have it both ways, he said, and that’s hard to do: If a school chases status by recruiting students with high test scores, high grades and fat checkbooks, its student body will be richer and whiter.

“The people of Virginia have to decide what they want,” he said. “Do they want this stellar institution on the hill, or do they want the UVA student body to look like the college-age population of Virginia?”

Griffin maintained that UVA is in a better position than many. It has a massive endowment—now reportedly north of $7 billion, far outpacing several Ivy League private schools—that affords some security. More importantly, he said, it’s successfully called on deep-pocketed and generous alumni in the past, and it will continue to do so.

“I don’t worry about UVA fulfilling our public duty because of donors stepping up,” Griffin said.

Can turning to private donors successfully close the widening gaps in public education? Schools are certainly trying to make that model work, said Carnevale, but he believes there’s only so far it can go.

“Push that logic to the wall—the generation that graduates funds the generation that’s coming in,” he said, and all the while, costs go up. “It’s like an arms race. There’s no end.”

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