In these days of skyrocketing tuition, administrators often justify rate hikes with promises to spare the neediest students from the pain of the increases. Pledges to set aside a portion of tuition revenue for financial aid are presented as a way of rationalizing college costs — charging the richest students more, the argument goes, will allow the institution to protect access for the poorest.

Tuition is far more visible than financial aid rates, however, and because of that there’s always a temptation to nibble away at grant disbursements when budgets need balancing. At the same time, pressure to lure wealthy students and to climb up in national rankings increasingly leads public colleges to divert the aid money they do provide to applicants farther up the income ladder.

The latest college to curtail financial aid in a big way is the University of Virginia, and students there are fighting back.

For about ten years, the AccessUVa program has provided full financial aid to eligible students — several hundred in each entering class — in the form of grants. Starting next spring, however, the first $3,500 to $7,000 of AccessUVa aid each student receives each year will be a loan.

The impact of the rollback extends beyond the financial, too. Just as a high base tuition price can scare away students eligible for aid — a phenomenon education researchers call “sticker shock” — the knowledge that they’ll have to apply for hefty loans can discourage students from applying at all. The problem is particularly acute at the UVa, which is seen by many students as “elitist, preppy … homogenous” and unwelcoming to poor students and students of color.

In the wake of August’s 15-2 Board of Visitors vote to restructure the program, a student group called Restore AccessUVa (@RestoreAccess on Twitter) has arisen to try to force a reversal of the decision. The group has deluged the Board with emails, held an on-campus rally, and collected thousands of signatures on a petition in support of the program’s original mission.

More as this story unfolds…