Students & Parents | General Education

Reform Virginia’s flagship university doesn’t need

VIRGINIAN-PILOT   |  May 18, 2014 by Anne D. Neal

The University of Virginia has a problem.

It’s not just that the university founded by Thomas Jefferson allows students to graduate without a single course in American history or economics. Or that many classrooms often sit empty. Or that this month the board voted to hike tuition yet again far above the inflation rate.

It’s that—for a university that prides itself on being public and whose founder was explicit in his vision of meritocratic access to education—U.Va. has very little socioeconomic diversity.

President Teresa Sullivan has written to scores of principals in low-income areas to promote U.Va. She met with President Barack Obama to discuss ways to attract high-achieving students facing financial hardships. The school has even started text messaging to guide young people through the admissions process.

Why then, amidst this scramble to enroll students from disadvantaged backgrounds, did the school slash AccessUVA, one of the most generous aid packages in the nation for low-income students? The board voted 15-2 in August to strip the program of the no-loans provision on which many disadvantaged Virginians relied. In doing so, trustees began abandoning the mission of a truly public university.

Years ago, U.Va. sent its dean of admissions on extensive, multi-city tours to promote AccessUVA. The school had a lot to be proud of. The program provided high-achieving, low-income students an opportunity to attend U.Va. without crippling debt loads.

At U.Va., undergraduate tuitions have risen more than 25 percent in the past five years, even after adjusting for inflation. The savings from gutting AccessUVA are less than a quarter of a percent of U.Va.’s budget but represent a lot more to the people who depend on this access. Jefferson’s university is in danger of becoming a privatized playground for the privileged.

Meanwhile, Sullivan’s base pay is $485,000, a higher salary than that of the U.S. president or Virginia’s governor. Students will pay the cost of all of these poor administrative decisions—and low-income students who won’t have an opportunity to go to U.Va. will pay an even higher price.

According to the recently released study “Getting What You Pay For?,” U.Va. falls below other top-rated public institutions in affordability and providing a coherent general education. Despite the fact that its $5 billion endowment makes U.Va. the wealthiest public university in the country per capita, tuition and fees still cost nearly 20 percent of the median household income—and growing.

This is not the type of reform Virginia’s flagship needs.

Presidents of public universities once proudly defended the institutions’ role of providing an educated citizenry and a skilled workforce and giving young people a chance to move up. Alas, many such presidents appear to have abandoned this special mission, instead advocating for what amounts to privatization of public universities.

Last year Sullivan oversaw the appointment of a public university working group, which called for a “new contract between the University and the Commonwealth of Virginia”—essentially a call for privatization. Tuitions would be raised to private-university levels on the promise that in-state students would have access to increased financial aid.

Taxpayers, along with trustee Helen Dragas, who dissented from the decision to slash AccessUVA, understand that trustees should be working hard to keep public institutions public. They want to defend public institutions’ unique mission of readying a state’s young people for a lifetime of learning, work and active citizenship.

The solution is not for U.Va. to muscle out low-income students who deserve a chance to attend Virginia’s flagship public institution. The solution is to innovate.

There are state institutions, recession notwithstanding, making this happen. Rather than embracing privatization and reducing student access, schools in Florida, for example, are undertaking administrative streamlining, academic prioritization, year-round enrollment and creative use of technology. Purdue University President Mitch Daniels called for a tuition freeze for a third straight year. And trustees in Missouri and Minnesota have implemented academic program prioritization, including cuts.

How tragic, in Virginia and elsewhere, that too many college presidents and rubber-stamp trustees have found it easier to impose cost increases on those least able to afford them—lower and middle-class students—rather than make the tough decisions to do more and better with what they have.


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