Just a few years ago, we the people of UW-Madison were hearing quite a bit about the flagship university of another state — the University of Virginia. Our Chancellor at the time, Biddy Martin, is from Virginia, and lauded UVA’s efforts to gain autonomy from the state while also increasing affordability through its “Access UVA” program.
I vehemently and repeatedly disagreed with Martin’s assessment of UVA and its “successes” at the time, but to little avail. She managed to convince most of the university that a semi-divorce from the state would allow for financial flexibilities that would help to make college more affordable. While some of her plans were thwarted by the rest of Wisconsin, she got the vote of the Faculty Senate and to this day, many students and faculty speak of her efforts as if they made UW-Madison more affordable.
In point of fact, they did not, and today even the poster child she commended– UVA– fell to pieces. Access UVA will no longer be a grants program, instead it will be scaled back and shifted to include a sizable amount of loans. Students from low-income families will graduate with $14,000 in debt (if they escape after just 4 years–unlikely) and other students with up to $28,000.
Access UVA, said President Teresa Sullivan, wasn’t “sustainable.” There’s an end-stop to her statement that makes you wonder if she and the school recognize that the result was not inevitable but rather stemmed directly from the political and policy choices made over the last decade. Now UVA must face facts: its costs of attendance are high, its support from the state of Virginia is low, and it is going to ask students from poor families to graduate with debt amounting to a third or more of their families’ annual income. These things don’t just happen.
High-tuition high-aid models of financing higher education were formulated and evaluated at a time when college students were on average wealthier, whiter, and smaller in number. It was perhaps possible to feel proudly progressive about taking tuition from the top 75% and redistributing aid to the bottom 25% (or even 90/10). No longer. Today about 80% of students feel college is unaffordable, and yet they have to pay high tuition to make the top 20% happy in their glorified teeny-tiny classes, lush campuses, and elitist environments. Only a fraction of that 80% gets any significant grant aid, while the rest carry debt. In this model, 80% of the students bear the brunt of the education of the top 20%, who escape from their college party years with debt that Mommy and Daddy pay off on graduation day.
The student leader at UVA who objected to these changes perfectly described the real underlying problem when he said “[but] there are increasingly few places left to streamline or cut back on to make these ends meet without impacting the quality of education or student experience.” There it is– we need to spend a lot to have high quality. Affordability be damned.
Anyone who’s taken a stroll across UVA’s lawns knows that it would be perfectly possible to have a darned good college education for the students of the state at a fraction of what they are spending now. Sure, it wouldn’t be the same– but times they are changing. And it is far less tenable for colleges and universities to throw up their ivy-covered walls and say “sorry you cost too much” to poor students than to insist that they take action to lower their costs for all students, to make college opportunities for all Americans the realities they should and must be.