Cutting Costs
How to make college affordable in Virginia
Illustration by Jeffrey Alan Love
It’s the million-dollar question: “How much will college cost me?” With rising Virginia tuition rates, it’s no wonder that students (and their parents) are looking for ways to save.

According to the College Board website (collegeboard.org) from the 2007-08 academic year to 2012-13, Virginia saw a 29-percent increase in tuition and fees at its public four-year colleges and universities. Even though the average in 2012-13 was the lowest tuition increase in a decade, at 4.1 percent, tuition costs are already rising well above that figure at many of Virginia’s colleges this year.

There are several options for in-state students when it comes to financial aid. The first is obvious: Make sure to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Your FAFSA determines the amount of federal aid you will receive and is also what most Virginia colleges and universities use as a baseline for your financial aid award. There are also several state grants and scholarships that are listed on the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia website (schev.edu).

Still looking for more ways to save? There are some cost-cutting strategies that can help make college more affordable.

Enrolling in a two-year college first and then transferring to a four-year university is one way to save money. Attending community college often allows students to complete general education requirements at a fraction of the cost of a four-year university.

There are Guaranteed Admission Agreements between all 23 Virginia community colleges and more than 20 Virginia four-year colleges and universities. The GAA establishes requirements such as which courses to take and a minimum GPA to transfer with basic education requirements met. Maura Spreen, the lead transfer counselor on the Virginia Beach campus of Tidewater Community College, uses GAA to assist with advising students. She’s able to map out exactly which courses her students should be taking to guarantee a seamless transfer to the university of their choice.

“I can pull up the college and universities that they’re considering. I can pull up their major, their curriculum guide, and we can take a look at what they are going to need when they get to that four-year school,” says Spreen.

“Many of the universities provide us recommended courses based on the major. So, if you go into Virginia Tech’s website or you go into JMU’s website, you go into University of Virginia’s website, they will give you recommended courses to advise a student into for their major.”

Elissa Sanford is a TCC student who has wanted to attend the College of William & Mary since the age of 9. There is a GAA between TCC and W&M, and Sanford chose to attend TCC first to take advantage of the agreement and the resulting tuition savings.

“I did know that with this guaranteed admission, it would make things a little more secure in transferring ... I have had so much help from my counselors,” says Sanford.

Beginning this fall, the College of William & Mary is offering the William & Mary Promise. Incoming Virginia undergraduates will lock-in the cost of tuition (not including fees and other costs) for their four years of attendance. That means the $10,428 that they pay for this academic year will stay the same until they graduate. For fall 2014, the cost of tuition will rise for incoming Virginia undergraduates to $12,428 and that will be frozen for four years for those students.

The W&M Promise is the result of recommendations from the Governor’s Higher Education Commission and the college’s own strategic plan.

“It’s a program to essentially do three things,” says Samuel Jones, Vice President for finance at W&M. “It was to make tuition more predictable for Virginia undergraduates and their families; it was to make the college more affordable for those low- and middle-income families; and it was to make the college more accessible; which ultimately we did by adding some additional undergraduate seats.”

The program will also reduce the amount of student loan debt for low- and middle-income Virginia families with a household income of $100,000 or less by offering financial aid packages that allow the family to pay no more than the “net tuition” or tuition less financial aid.

Beginning in the fall of 2014, the University of Richmond will offer free tuition, room and board to incoming first-year Virginia students whose household income is $60,000 or less. This is an increase from the current aid to families whose household income totals $40,000 or less. The need-based assistance will eliminate loans for middle- to low-income families.

“We really work hard to make sure that families who are in a position to benefit from a Richmond education are able to do so,” says Gil Villanueva, assistant vice president and dean of admission at UR.
With a total financial aid budget of $72 million, the university provides financial assistance to students even if they do not qualify for the special financial aid program for Virginia residents. Currently, it is hard to determine how many Virginia students will benefit from the program. However, in 2012-13, 19 percent of the roughly 3,200 undergraduates were Virginia in-state students. Of those, 10 percent received aid from the $40,000 aid program, meaning that about 60 students benefited.

This year, The University of Virginia was named the “Best Value Public College” by the Princeton Review and USA Today. The designation is based on academics, cost and financial aid. 650 colleges in the nation were surveyed, and 150 schools were chosen for the list.

UVa.’s financial aid program, Access-UVa, has been in effect for 10 years, as of February 2014. It was created to ensure that an undergraduate education is available to all students regardless of finances and in-state or out-of-state status. The program meets 100 percent of demonstrated need for all undergraduates who have been admitted.

“The tenets of AccessUVa have remained stable over 10 years, but the program cost and the number of students affected have changed dramatically,” says Yvonne Hubbard, recently retired executive director of student financial services. “Unrestricted institutional funds devoted to the program have increased from about $11.5 million at the inception of the program, to an estimated $40.2 million.”

In August, the UVa. Board of Visitors reauthorized Access-UVa. There was one key change to the program. Beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, need-based loans will also be included in the financial-aid packages of all students. Previously, need-based loans were replaced with grants for low-income students. This change will also not affect current students. The program adjustment is the result of an effort to reduce the rising cost while still meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need for all undergraduates.

It will be phased in over four years and by 2018, there will be a decrease in the institutional cost of the program by $6 million per year. AccessUVa will also cap the amount of need-based loans at $28,000 over a four-year period. The university has projected that the average amount of need-based loans for in-state students would be about $14,000.

Merit scholarships are available at most colleges and universities, and vary in the amount of financial assistance provided and the qualifications which must be met. Washington + Lee University is a private, liberal arts college that offers the Johnson Scholarship. This is a merit-based program unique to the university that allows qualifying students to graduate debt-free. Students who meet W+L’s requirements receive anywhere from $56,000, which covers tuition, room and board, to $60,000, which also covers tuition, room and board, plus fees, books and miscellaneous expenses. Approximately 10 percent of each entering class will receive the scholarship, and with an average of 475 students who enroll each year, that means about 47 students can benefit. Johnson scholarship recipients only apply once and receive the aid all four years as long as they keep a GPA of 3.3.

Approximately 48 percent of students at W+L receive some type of institutional aid regardless of state residency, and about 61 percent of students receive some type of financial aid from other sources, including loans.

“It’s our goal to make sure that students that are admitted to the university and that are eligible for aid receive the full amount of what they are eligible for,” says James Kaster, director of financial aid. “So if we determine a student has a certain need, it is our policy to meet that need.”

It’s important to remember that these programs are just a few examples of money-saving options for Virginia students. To decide which college or university is right for each individual student, an assessment of finances needs to be made. Before starting the process, students need to know their annual income, how much they can afford to contribute to the cost of attendance and how much debt they’re willing to accrue in loans.

Tuition costs can be deceiving. While it may appear that tuition is low at some universities and colleges, mandatory fees and other costs may drive that price higher, increasing the actual amount students end up paying. 

Financial aid officers at each college or university can help steer students to the forms of institutional aid available based on academic standing or financial situation. Although daunting, figuring out how to pay for that college degree is possible with a little diligence.

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