By Neil Haggerty

Washington and Lee University’s newest financial aid promise could open the school’s doors to many local high school students.

The university’s commitment, announced earlier this month, is to offer free tuition to any student with a family income at or below $75,000 a year.

In Buena Vista, where the median household income is about $35,000, the offer could make a big difference for some Parry McCluer High School students.

“I think it’s a great thing what they’re doing,” said Mark Wheeler, director of guidance for Buena Vista public schools. “I really hope that some other colleges look at what W&L is doing and follow suit.”

Wheeler said he encourages his students to save money by enrolling in community colleges for two years and then going to four-year colleges.

Students who graduate with an associate’s degree from a community college in Virginia and maintain a minimum grade point average are guaranteed admission to one of more than 20 four-year colleges and universities. Those four-year colleges do not include Washington and Lee.

But if Washington and Lee’s promise becomes the trend for other four-year colleges, Wheeler said more of his students might be able to begin their college educations at four-year colleges.

In the past, Washington and Lee provided grants amounting to one-half of its $43,570 per year tuition to residents of Buena Vista, Lexington and Rockbridge County. But because the median family income in Rockbridge County is about $45,000 a year, the university’s recent promise should keep many local students’ families from having to pay anything toward tuition.

This new commitment does not include room and board, textbooks and other expenses, but university President Ken Ruscio said many of the students eligible for free tuition might also receive aid for those costs through other grants provided by the college.

Eric Sheffield, president of the Rockbridge County High School Parent-Teacher-Student Association, said the cost of attending college is on his radar. He will have two daughters in college next year.

Sheffield’s younger daughter, a senior at Rockbridge County High School, wants to go to a small liberal arts college like Washington and Lee. But, like many of her peers, she also wants to go to a college outside of the county.

Sheffield said Washington and Lee’s promise could change things for students like his daughter.

“For a large number of students, it would make it very attractive,” he said.

Mathew Rapoza, a guidance counselor at Rockbridge County High School, said in an email that many capable students eliminate the option of attending a four-year college because of  rising costs.

Rapoza said Washington and Lee has always offered generous financial aid packages to students at Rockbridge County High, but many students still like to branch out and go to college out of the county.

Ruscio said Washington and Lee strives to attract students from all over the country and from other nations, but he hopes the new financial aid promise will also attract students from Rockbridge County.

“It’s great to have folks from China,” Ruscio said. “It’s great to have folks from our backyard as well.”

Washington and Lee’s financial aid packages have attracted national attention. In its 2014 college rankings, Kiplinger Personal Finance Magazine named Washington and Lee the best value liberal arts college.

For the past six years, the school’s Johnson Scholarship program has offered free tuition and room-and-board for about 44 “exceptionally qualified students.” The program is funded by a $100 million donation from alumnus Rupert Johnson. Washington and Lee also meets “full demonstrated need” for students through grants and work-study jobs.

University officials said the new promise was made possible by Washington and Lee’s $500 million capital campaign. The university set a target of $160 million to fund need-based financial aid. It has raised $132 million toward that goal, officials say.

Ruscio said the capital campaign is just one more opportunity to make Washington and Lee accessible to students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

He said almost all of Washington and Lee’s admissions decisions are made without consideration of applicants’ finances. He said he hopes the university will be 100 percent “need-blind” in its admissions decisions in the future.

Wheeler, the Parry McCluer guidance counselor, said Washington and Lee’s selectivity does make it a challenge for most of his students, but he is going to let them know about the new financial aid program.

“It will open up a whole new world for them if they can get in,” he said.

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