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The University of Virginia is no stranger to controversy. Just over a year ago, in June 2012, the school’s governing body, the Board of Visitors, voted to oust the president after less than two years at the helm.

The dethroned President Teresa Sullivan was popular among faculty and students; the ousters on the Board of Visitors, led by Virginia real estate mogul Helen Dragas, were less thrilled with her performance. Sullivan fell out of favor with the board, the Washington Post noted, “because of her perceived reluctance to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive.” After students, faculty, and administrators turned out to defend Sullivan and criticize Dragas, the board reinstated Sullivan.

Flash forward to 2013. In April, Sullivan was at the forefront of the charge to increase the university’s tuitionby 3.8 percent and 4.8 percent for in-state and out-of-state students respectively. Last week, Sullivan was one of the chief supporters of a plan to cut back on the AccessUVa program, the school’s financial aid commitment to low- and moderate-income students that began in 2004. Whereas previously the school covered all costs for students from families making up to twice the federal poverty line (about $47,000 per year for a family of four), the school will now only cover part of the cost, with the student needing to borrow the remaining amount.

The proposal to raise tuition eventually passed the Board of Visitors in a 14-2 vote, as did the proposal to scale back financial aid. The main dissenter in both cases? Helen Dragas.

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I’m not normally in favor of a person selectively picking examples that support a pre-existing position, but in this case I am the one doing it so I am willing to make an exception.

A short while ago, I argued in The Atlanticthat the high-tuition, high-aid model was not working. Facing too many funding priorities, it was difficult for schools to keep aid in line with tuition when aid is an easy target for cuts. This parallels closely to the world of social insurance, in which means tested programs for the poor fail to have the same widespread level of support that universal benefit programs do.

The recent decisions at UVA showcase this theory in practice. An article about the April tuition hikes made the point clearly: “In its current form, AccessUVa is diverting a widening stream of university money from other priorities the university is trying to fund, such as faculty salaries, which increasingly lag behind competing schools’.”

This adds further confirmation to the idea that in many cases, even at elite public universities, financial aid and tuition will not rise together. A more likely situation is that tuition will rise and financial aid will fall, putting the burden on low-income students to either not enroll or take on more debt. In either case, the ability for low-income students to maintain access to higher education decreases. Unlike some schools – in which the “other priorities” that take away support for low-income students include funding for ‘merit aid’ and new buildings – UVA’s problems are not so cut and dry. But the problem with high-tuition, high-aid still remains.

In some ways, the financial aid program at UVA is a victim of its own successes: it has worked well enough to attract and enroll low-income students that the school says it now costs too much money. Previously, UVA was able to keep its financial aid costs low because it enrolled extremely few low-income students: in 2004, a mere 8.7 percent of students received federal Pell Grants, a number that actually decreased through 2007. While the share is still very low today relatively to other elite institutions – only 12-13 percent of the undergraduate student body receives Pell Grants – the almost 50 percent increase in the number of low-income students, likely due both to AccessUVa and the impact of the recession, has made the budget pressures of the program more apparent.

This is not to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the university (or, perhaps, we probably shouldn’t be blaming anyone at all). As UVA is quick to note, it receives lower state appropriations for higher education than many other flagships. The state’s southern neighbor, North Carolina, provides nearly three times as much funding per full time student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill than Virginia does for its flagship campus. UVA provides this handy chartto show that it receives less funding per in-state student than its competitors. Of course, this chart handpicks which schools it wants to compare to UVA and leaves out other prominent public schools like University of Texas at Austin, which receive less state appropriations than UVA. When I selectively choose examples to help prove my point it’s acceptable, but when other people do it’s far less enjoyable.

Additionally, the school emphasizes that it needs to pay its faculty more to stay competitive – which it cannot do given the increasing amount of money it is using for financial aid. The UVA budget claims that it wants to move its compensation ranking higher on the list produced by the Association of American Universities (AAU). This premise means, however, that UVA is competing with both public and private universities. If fair compensation has to match that of private elite universities, it is not surprising that UVA falls behind. A quick comparison with other large, top-tier public schools based on AAUP data shows that UVA’s faculty compensation, while behind UC-Berkeley and Michigan, is similar to that of Texas and Maryland. So while the concerns about adequate faculty pay are legitimate, it is important to keep in mind how the school defines the competition.

Thus, the pressures facing UVA, while perhaps overstated, are indeed real – and the state’s low level of funding has been a primary contributor to UVA’s funding woes. However, it would also be wrong to let UVA completely off the hook. As Kevin Carey pointed out last year, UVA has an endowment of $5 billion, making it the wealthiest public school per capita in the country. And part of the reason it is struggling is because previously it enrolled very few low-income students. If the school’s distribution of students was unequal before, the best response to an increase in low-income students cannot be to try to make them go away by making college more expensive. By moving further toward a high-tuition, high-aid model, the school has exposed itself to a greater possibility that access for low-income students will continue to fall away.

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The third part of a trilogy is always difficult to judge ahead of time, and we may well have to wait until next summer before the third installment of the Dragas-Sullivan showdown occurs. There is an equal chance that it will be a positive development (think: Return of the King) or a negative one (think: Spider-Man 3).

Without knowing more about the internal deliberations and perspectives of each player in this saga, it would be unfair to cast Sullivan’s decisions as a pure embrace of corporate bottom line strategies. But they will certainly make it more difficult for students to afford college, both deterring potential students from enrolling and adding to the student debts of those who do. As Dragas pointed out in the Washington Post, “This goes against our mission of affordable excellence and undermines [university founder Thomas] Jefferson’s insistence that excellence and access were both essential to perpetuating a democracy.”

For those who watched last year’s ouster with a combination of confusion and horror, to view Dragas as the crusader for low-tuition and more access feels a bit strange. And given the many concerns that Dragas voicedabout the state of the budget during the saga, it is unclear what other cuts she would favor to help make up the shortfall. For all we know, it could involve gutting huge swaths of certain departments, which, too, would conflict with a vision of academic excellence.

The policymakers and administrators watching, though, should take note: the combination of decreased state funding, adverse economic conditions, increasing numbers of high-achieving low-income students, and the systemic problems of the high-tuition high-aid model has shifted more of the costs of higher education onto the backs of low- and moderate-income students. This is not just a problem at UVA: all of the incentives in the higher education system are designed to continually push out low- and moderate-income studentsin favor of the rich. As a leading institution, hopefully next summer will see UVA: Episode III in which the school – and state – leads the charge to make quality public higher education available to students of all backgrounds.

Joshua Freedman is a Policy Analyst for the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation

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