Tickets” by Bart Heird

April 1, 2017; Washington Post

It should come as no surprise that college admissions decisions are sometimes influenced by an applicant’s relationship with a major donor or other influential person. The influence is seldom acknowledged and usually done on a wink and a nod, or, at its most explicit, a handshake agreement behind closed doors.

The coordination between the advancement and the admissions departments at the University of Virginia (UVA) has been exposed through a state-level freedom of information act (FOIA) request. (Thirty-six states have some type of FOIA law.) UVA was compelled to release documents related to a “watch list” of VIP applicants awaiting an admissions decision. The Washington Post made a sample of the 164 pages of documents, obtained by author Jeff Thomas as part of book research, available on its website. There are handwritten notations for applicant records that include “$500K,” “if at all possible A[ccept],” and “BFF” and “sorority sister” of a redacted individual. The documents appear to have been generated by the advancement department; no admissions department files were included in the 164 pages.

UVA’s response was generic, not addressing any specifics contained in the revealed documents.

“The Office of Advancement is occasionally contacted by alumni, friends and supporters recommending students who have an interest in attending UVA,” spokesman Anthony de Bruyn wrote in a statement to the Post. “Such a practice is not unique to UVA and can be found at similar institutions.”

De Bruyn wrote that the admission office alone “is charged with the sole responsibility of reviewing applications on a holistic basis” and that it “does not coordinate with the advancement office about applicants during the application process.” But he wrote that the advancement unit “receives periodic updates to better inform its stewardship efforts.”

UVA was founded as a public state university in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson. It is also among the 100 most academically elite schools in the U.S. and has an endowment of almost $6 billion, also placing it solidly in the top 100. Elite schools, including UVA, have been criticized for having disproportionately high numbers of wealthy or affluent students. For example, in 2015, only 13 percent of UVA students qualified for Pell grants.

The approximately 59 students on the “watch list” for the class of 2021 would not materially affect these student and family income statistics, as almost 10,000 students were accepted for admission. However, the wait list is uncomfortably emblematic of a mindset. Sensitivity to the desires of those seeking to influence the watch list’s composition and disposition makes one wonder whether applicants without economic, athletic, or other influence are reaching the sensitivities of UVA officials.

This is a story that other public universities should pay attention to, as others may emulate Thomas’s idea to petition or sue for their state universities’ advancement and admissions records to determine how one department may influence the other. They should also be ready to answer the inevitable questions from legislators and the public about how wealth influences academic opportunity in their state’s selective public universities.—Michael Wyland