In the middle of all of the bad news about the nation’s economy that we have been hearing and reading in recent months, we received some good news in January when The Princeton Review named UVA the nation’s No. 1 best-value public university in its annual “100 Best Value Colleges” list. The best-value ranking would be a noteworthy recognition in any year. During this deep recession, it is especially good news because students’ families and elected officials alike have recognized anew that affordable excellence in colleges and universities has to be a major national priority. The president and Congress have built the concept into several elements of the stimulus package. Even state elected officials who have neglected the issue for more than 20 years while siphoning funds from colleges and universities to other priorities have begun to talk about their responsibilities to higher education.
This week as I write, the U.S. unemployment rate stands at 8.5 percent. Job losses have occurred at all levels of employment in most of our major industries. Many companies and analysts are forecasting additional job cuts in the months ahead. In a move that may be equally pernicious in the long run, some workers have had their salaries frozen or reduced—a reduction that rarely or never comes back when the economy rights itself and profits resume. Many families have seen their home values decrease. Rising numbers of people are experiencing home foreclosures as jobs disappear or shrink, resets come due in their mortgages, or other crises hit their family finances. Most of us have watched our retirement accounts dwindle as well.
In this unstable and uncertain environment, many families are this month going through the annual effort to plan and pay for college for their children. The combination of the ongoing failure of federal and state financial-aid programs and the recession may make this the hardest of all years for the largest group of families—the middle-income families who are not protected even to the partial extent that the newly bolstered Pell program promises to assist students from impoverished families. Only part of this, the recession, is new. The other elements of the problem have been brewing in Congress and in state legislatures for almost a generation.
The Princeton Review’s best-value ranking is based on three criteria: quality of academics; cost of attendance; and financial-aid programs. At the University, we aim to offer a superior education at a reasonable cost. From what I can tell, we come out well in these rankings for several reasons, but especially because of AccessUVa. Faculty members and deans compete well in national rankings of academic programs. They and our students deserve credit for the quality of academic life here. Donors, the Rector and Visitors, and our managers, especially those who work with Leonard Sandridge on pricing and cost allocation, have kept our total cost of attendance below average in the markets where we compete for students. Despite ongoing reductions in state support, collaboration among these partners has succeeded in keeping our prices reasonable. AccessUVa is an even broader collaborative effort that began with the Board of Visitors’ determination that we will meet 100 percent of every undergraduate’s established need, and do it in a way that serves the distinct situations of students from both the lowest income groups and middle-income families, especially those who support more than one college student at one time.
AccessUVa is a huge commitment, but one that could not have been timelier in its creation if the Board had known that a recession was coming. We fund it with revenue from gifts, from various endowments designated for need-based financial aid, from profits or excess reserves in any number of University units that receive external revenue—the book store, for example—and from internal reallocations. Like most public universities, we are required to allocate funds for need-based aid from both diminished state appropriations and the tuition fund. Probably all colleges have roughly this mix of sources for financial aid. The difference here is that the Rector and Visitors have made raising funds for AccessUVa and squeezing sufficient funds from existing sources our top priority, especially during this recession.
AccessUVa supports in whole or in part no fewer than 882 students in this first-year class, and 3,781 altogether. Students whose family incomes are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line receive loan-free, all-grant aid packages—scholarships of the kind that many of us received as students, but fully funded. For qualifying middle-income students, loans are added to the mix, with a maximum loan cap for four years of approximately 25 percent of the in-state cost of attendance. The result is that qualifying students can graduate with manageable amounts of debt and not have debt from undergraduate school divert them from medical school, law school, service with Teach for America or whatever other aspirations they may have.
AccessUVa cost $53.8 million this year. This cost will rise as unemployment rises, and more of our families apply and qualify for aid. That this recession has generated layoffs that are more vertical (hitting all wage or professional grades and not simply workers at the bottom of a scale) than horizontal suggests that middle-income families may be the most pressed for funds next fall. The Rector and Visitors are determined to sustain and build this program in the years ahead. Needless to say, we will work especially hard this summer and in the coming year to bolster AccessUVa so that we can meet this predictable and increasing need.
Some of you have been involved in one of the best stories about AccessUVa, and I want to thank you for that. When Admission Dean Jack Blackburn’s illness became known last fall, Gordon Burris began calling mutual friends to seek funds for AccessUVa scholarships that Jack had identified as the way he wanted to be remembered here. The fund to support the John A. Blackburn Endowed Scholarships for AccessUVa now totals more than $1.8 million—funds that came in both large and small sums as alumni, friends, parents, and even a few students gave what they could to create this program. Assuming reasonably normal rates of return and essentially average need-per-student, the Blackburn fund will support between three and eight students each year. I think that all of us remember Jack Blackburn first and most vividly for his goodness to students from every background. Of the many things Jack loved and the many gifts he left for our students and their families, I cannot imagine one that would matter more to Jack and to his family than this living gift for future generations of students.