by Grady Brown
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced the Commonwealth received a federal Gear-Up grant to improve low-income student college preparedness earlier this week. But the University’s decision to cut AccessUVA funding and the Commonwealth’s deep budget cuts are sending mixed messages about the Virginia’s commitment to low-income student college going.
The Federal government recognized the importance that college preparedness plays in increasing college access to low-income students by introducing Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs grants. GEAR UP states receive a six or seven year matching grant to increase the state’s capacity for early intervention and college preparedness programing for low-income students. State officials aim these grants specifically at cohorts of low-income students, no later than 7th grade, and follow them through high school graduation and into their first year of college. Officials set aside portions of the grants for financial aid and scholarships. Several states who successfully implemented GEAR UP grants reported increased AP test completion, gains in graduation rates, and higher college application completion rates among low income students.
Virginia was one of the states selected to receive a GEAR UP grant in the amount of $22 million over seven years. McAuliffe recently announced the state was using these grants to “Expand access to post-secondary education in every corner of the Common wealth” by working with schools to “prepare more low-income students to get the skills and training they need to succeed in the 21st Century economy.” The objective is to better prepare low-income students for college and to open the doors to higher education for them. According to the Governor’s statement, the state will direct GEAR Up funds at nearly 6,000 seventh graders in 16 school districts across the state.
The grants come as higher education institutions are seemingly focusing on increasing college access to middle-class families, rather than low-income families. At the same time, Pell Grant awards have been seeing slight cuts. Colleges may offer a higher overall financial aid packages to middle class students, who tend to score higher on college preparedness rankings. It’s no surprise that low-income students tend to score lower on standardized tests and college entrance exams. ACT found that, while 64 percent of all students met the College Readiness Benchmark for English, only 45 percent of low-income students met the benchmark. Experts observe that trend across all subjects. Gear-Up may work to address those gaps.
Earlier this month, however, McAuliffe announced a budget deal creating a $45 million budget gap for state universities next year. U.Va. will have a 5 percent cut for the current fiscal year, roughly $6.5 million, and 7 percent for next year. This comes off last year, when the Board of Visitors announced a 4.3 percent tuition increase for in-state students and a 5.9 percent increase for out of state students. While the budget deal doesn’t freeze tuition rates, McAuliffe has remained adamant about keeping tuition rates as low as possible.
Last year, the University of Virginia also cut back on awards through its financial aid program, AccessUVA. The program had grown in size, from $11.5 million in 2004, when it first started, to more than $40 million now. Yet even with the program’s increased cost and size, U.Va. has not been as economically diverse as other higher education institutions. Only 13 percent of students at U.Va. receive Pell Grants, compared to 36 percent at University of California at Berkley. The Board’s decision has an impact on low-income students, as AccessUVA offered free tuition to the neediest students, through a mixture of grants and work-study. Starting this year, the Board voted to force all low-income students to take out some federally subsidized loans as part of their financial aid package. The original announcement on the changes caused controversy and push back from the student council. Students held protests during the Board of Visitor’s meeting this month to voice their concern.
Time will tell if Virginia’s focus on low-income college preparedness will lead to increased access and college attendance among the state’s low-income students. Cuts to low-income student financial aid programs may negate some of the impact the GEAR UP grant creates, but perhaps with a higher degree of preparedness among low-income students, colleges and universities will work harder to open the doors to higher education to the state’s most economically disadvantaged students.