When Laryssa Arms’ financial aid package arrived in 2017, it warranted both a second and third opinion.

“I read it and I read it and I read it, and I thought, I don’t think my 17-year-old brain is comprehending this correctly,” said Arms, who earned a degree in psychology in 2021. “I asked my mom to read it, and she was like, ‘No, you’re right Laryssa,’ and I didn’t believe her. So I took it to my high school guidance counselor, who said, ‘No, you’re right. That’s a big scholarship.’”

That fall, Arms was one of 85 Hokies selected for the Presidential Scholarship Initiative, a four-year, full scholarship program designed to recognize and reward academically talented and dedicated Virginians with significant financial need.

Today, Arms is a Virginia Tech financial aid advisor, and, as of this summer, the scholarship that helped her get there has been expanded to 95 students per cohort. This brings the total number of Hokies enrolled in the program to 340 undergraduates.

“It was life-changing,” said Arms. “And I don’t know if that even comes close to encompassing how important it is. It just really makes college so accessible for students in the program.”

The Presidential Scholarship Initiative is just one example of university efforts to remove many of the traditional barriers to higher education. This work has been key to Virginia Tech rising to rank 22nd among more than 600 universities in Money Magazine’s “Best Colleges for Your Money” rankings last spring. The publication based the university’s overall score on an estimated full price of attendance, the acceptance rate, the percentage of students receiving grants, the percentage of students who graduate, and the average early career earnings for graduates.

“The ranking directly reflects Virginia Tech’s commitment to increase affordability, especially for underrepresented and underserved students, while providing a quality educational experience that prepares graduates for success,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “As a result, our graduates land great jobs and have a positive impact on their communities. As the university advances, access and affordability for our students and families will remain a top priority.”
Those efforts are particularly salient for residents of Virginia. In June, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors effectively froze tuition for in-state undergraduate students with a special, one-time scholarship to offset a 3 percent tuition increase. Over the past four years, Virginia Tech has increased in-state tuition just 5.9 percent, while nationwide, the consumer price index rose more than 20 percent.  

On average, Hokies graduate with less debt than other students in the United States; 49 percent of Virginia Tech’s 2019 graduates moved on with debt compared to 62 percent nationally. And because a Virginia Tech degree helps bolster the employment and earnings potential of graduates, Virginia Tech borrowers also default on student loans less often. Just 1.2 percent of Virginia Tech’s 2018 cohort defaulted on a Federal Direct Loan or Federal Family and Education Loan compared to 2.1 percent of their peers across the nation.

In June, the Board of Visitors took another step to increase affordability beyond the in-state tuition freeze by allocating an additional $5.1 million to undergraduate financial aid programs. The financial commitment raises total institutional support for students to more than $39.4 million for the 2022-23 academic year.

The increase supports programs such as Funds for the Future, which provides 100 percent protection from tuition and fee increases for returning students with a family income of up to $100,000. In fall 2021, 90 percent of Virginia’s counties and municipalities were represented by students in the Funds for the Future program.

The Presidential Scholarship Initiative is another program benefitting from this additional support, which will help them surprise even more high-achieving Hokies from Virginia with support.

“I didn’t even know about it [the scholarship] until I was chosen for it,” said Levi Shoates, a second-year student studying creative technologies and a Presidential Scholar. “It was definitely a big part of my decision to come to Tech. I applied to like 20 schools, so it was really hard, but choosing Tech is probably the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Coming to Virginia Tech helped Shoates expand his studies to include not only a major in art, but also a minor in human-computer interaction. Being a part of the Presidential Scholars Initiative has helped expand his college experience and step out of his comfort zone a bit.

“I’ve enjoyed the fact that we have to go on campus for events because it encouraged me to go out and do things I normally wouldn’t do,” Shoates said. “I went to some events that were focused on careers and one on budgeting, which was really helpful.”

Likewise, five years after learning she had been awarded a spot in the program, Arms said the enrichment activities and guidance she received were critical to her success in college and beyond.

“It really helped round me out beyond the scholarship dollars,” said Arms. “The support and community PSI [Presidential Scholars Initiative] has built, that was very encouraging during times I really needed it.”

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