Corruption or just business?

New light brought upon secret UVA admissions practice


UVA rotunda on campus quadrangle

In the process of writing his novel, Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power, author Jeff Thomas used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain records of past admissions decisions and unknowingly exposed a secret about the University of Virginia (UVA) admissions process. Thomas released the records to the Washington Post who revealed that every year, the UVA advancement office creates a watchlist for students applying to the university. The office makes notes on application records that go through the admissions office to suggest changing the admissions decisions according to the applicant’s influence and monetary contribution to the university.

In 2011, there was one applicant whose family donated $500,000 to the university. An advancement officer made note of this in the applicant’s file which the admissions office reviewed; “$500k –must be on WL [for wait list] if at all possible A [for accepted].” There was another case where the advancement office wrote, “Friend of [name was redacted from FOIA records] alum and notable benefactor of college for years” and then the decision was written on the far right of the records as from D to WL (denied to waitlisted). These records went on for 164 pages, but the names of the applicants and their benefactors were all redacted.

After the Washington Post article was written in early April, University Spokesman Anthony de Bruyn wrote a statement to the Post denying the link between the admissions and advancement offices, stating that  “[the admissions office] is charged with the sole responsibility of reviewing applications on a holistic basis,” and it “does not coordinate with the advancement office about applicants during the application process.”

This statement would be extremely ironic if the amount of money a person gives to the college had a benefit on their ability to bump people off on the list above them to get into UVA. However, this would be impossible to prove definitely unless a member of the admissions committee candidly admits to  having accepted a student based on their financial status instead of academic merit. As it stands now, there are just FOIA records for people to draw their own conclusion from and other college deans sticking up for the university’s right to select people however they choose. Vice President for enrollment at Trinity College Angel Perez even said, “college admissions at a highly selective institution is not a meritocracy.”

My question is–why isn’t the admissions process a meritocracy? It seems logical that an institution built on furthering the education of students would be interested in making sure all of their student were actually able to keep up with the coursework and were interested in college. The whole point of an admissions board is to test the kids who want to go to a university and see if they are smart enough to handle the classwork and contribute to the school academically and socially once they get in. If rules are bent so that kids who do not meet the cut are let in due to donations, then that means there is a qualified student out there who was denied because their parents could not contribute thousands of dollars to pave their way.

The Washington Post article claims that only 59 people who were admitted to the class of 2021 were tracked through the advancement office. This seems like a small amount when you compare it to the 9,892 other kids offered admission, because after all, out of all the people offered a spot in the incoming freshmen class only roughly 40% (3,972) will take their slot. One could justify the admissions/advancement office’s actions by saying that there is a possibility the kids admitted for their money would not even take their spot in the fall. Maybe they will go somewhere else and it will not be an issue whether or not they can keep up with the coursework.

However, as a high school senior who has recently gone through the college process, it is my opinion that this is not the case. While it is true that these options are possibilities, and statistics will tell you anything in the world is possible to some degree (no matter how infinitesimally small), it seems improbable. If someone is admitted to the school, that means that the person who that spot should have gone to was bumped down to the waitlist, and someone who was supposed to be on the waitlist was denied. Even if the rich kid chooses to go to a different school and their issue of not being prepared for UVA, there are two other kids who were negatively affected by being bumped down a rung and now may never get a chance to get into the school they deserved.

To me, using wealth to get a spot in a college is equal to getting someone else to write your CommonApp essay or having someone sit for your ACTs. In all three cases, the applicant is using someone else’s resources to give them a leg up on the competition for admission. Donating large sums of money is a good way to dazzle and distract the board away from seeing that the student is weak and to convince  them to bend the rules even if they are not deserving. .

It is not like the parents are donating half a billion dollars out of the goodness of their hearts, and it is not like the university is accepting it without realizing there are conditions. If the donations really had no bearing on the admissions decisions, then there would not be communication between the advancement and admissions offices to begin with — let alone row after row of people donating money being moved from waitlist to accepted or denials to the waitlist.

Hundreds of people commented on the Washington Post article that it is not news that money gives people an advantage in the world. Many kept repeating that of course the college would pick the richer people because the university was looking out for it’s best interests and it needed the money provided from giving advantages to them during the admissions process.

The ironic thing is, UVA is already flushed with so much cash they do not know what to do with it all. There is no need to admit money over talent to the school: the university already has an endowment greater than $5.9 billion–making it the 5th richest university across the board (both public and private schools) in the entire United States. Even most prestigious Ivy League schools’ endowments pale in comparison to UVA’s. It is not like the school is lacking in funds, and even if there was a freeze put on the contributions to the endowment, the school would still be able to function comfortably off the 160 million dollars the state of Virginia gives it each year before ever having to dip into the endowment reserves.

Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which funds scholarships for low-income students, said that 72 percent of students at the 94 schools rated as “most selective” by Barron’s (UVA is one of these) come from the top income quartile (more than $130,000). Conversely, only 3 percent come from the bottom quartile (less than $26,00).

This could be a case of correlation does not equate causation: the richer kids can afford to go to better schools, get tutors to help them raise their grades and ACT/SAT scores, and their parents are legacies at the schools to which they are applying. Or, this major divide between socio-economic classes could be due to favoritism on the part of colleges to admit the richer people who can pad the endowment over those who would need help paying the thousands of dollars to attend college.

It will be impossible to tell whether people were admitted based on academic credentials or the strings they were able to pull until universities admit that there is a relationship between the people they admit and the need to secure the future of the endowment. As of now, UVA has not explained how most of their students come from the top tax brackets. “Until now colleges have insisted that it was accidental and happenstance,” Levy said in an interview with the Post over the leaked admission records notes. “But this puts a new light on it.”