Debate Around UVA ‘Watch List’ Reignites

Members of University of Virginia's student government are questioning the university's second look at legacy and donor-recommended applicants.

December 2, 2019
 
Getty Images/The Washington Post

The University of Virginia’s Student Council is reinvigorating the debate around “additional review” for certain well-connected applicants to the university, a practice that originally came under fire in 2017.

A September report by The Cavalier Daily, Virginia’s student newspaper, prompted Council President Ellie Brasacchio to propose a resolution urging the university to abolish this aspect of the admissions process, she said. Additional review -- referred to by students as an admissions “watch list” -- offers a second look at applicants with certain qualities and connections, such as legacy students, the children of faculty members, donor or staff recommendations, first-generation college students, athletic recruits, candidates for the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and students selected for Virginia’s various scholar programs.

The practice was originally uncovered in an April 2017 report by The Washington Post that revealed the Office of Institutional Advancement shared the names of applicants who had ties to wealthy donors or alumni with the Office of Undergraduate Admission. To advocates for first-generation and low-income students, what Virginia is doing appears to be a “lesser version” of the nationwide college admissions scandal, said Chris Sinclair, executive director of external affairs for the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership, or FLIP National, a nonprofit advocacy group for first-generation and low-income students.

“The ‘watch list’ is creating a category of students in the admissions process who may not have to measure up to the standards of admissions because it can be offset by the amount of money the person you’re related to is giving, or that a person high up is familiar with you,” Sinclair said. “That really disadvantages first-generation students … That’s another hurdle that these students have to overcome. You have to be better than the privileged people, then you have to outperform their level of connection.”

While Virginia said first-generation students are given an additional review for their status, students believe the main priority of the so-called watch list is legacy students and those with high-value connections.

At a private institution, the practice may be more acceptable, but still problematic, Sinclair said. But Virginia is a public university and should be “democratizing” higher education, not prioritizing certain groups outside of academic and individual merit, said Brasacchio, who is a first-generation student and is helping to create a FLIP National chapter at Virginia.

“It should be leveling the playing field for people,” Brasacchio said of the university. “It shouldn’t be engaging in these practices that are reminiscent of private Ivy League institutions, where back in the day you could only get into Harvard if you knew someone, or if your parents went there.”

“In 2019 at a public institution that claims to admit students based on their merit, that just doesn’t make sense to me,” Brasacchio said.

The Student Council held a forum about the additional review process on Nov. 19, where members of student government questioned Provost Liz Magill to learn more before the representative body voted on Brasacchio’s resolution, which ultimately did not pass, she said.

According to Brasacchio, Magill acknowledged that Virginia does and has offered additional review to select applicants for more than two decades, but pushed back on the notion that there’s a formal “watch list” or process for those being given a second look. Applicants who would be the first in their families to attend college are also part of this group, the university said.

Magill and Dean of Admissions Greg Roberts were not made available for comment.

“Ultimately, admission decisions are determined solely by the professional staff within the admission office,” wrote Brian Coy, assistant vice president for communications, in an email. “An additional review does not guarantee that an applicant will be admitted, as every student offered admission to UVA must be academically qualified to be here.”

Over all, Virginia is highly selective compared to other large, public institutions -- it had a 27 percent acceptance rate for first-time undergraduate applicants in fall 2017, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Only eight out of 2,792 total students admitted as part of regular decision for the 2018-19 academic year were given additional review based on recommendations from “employees, supporters or public officials, etc.,” Coy wrote. Forty-three percent of applicants who received additional review were wait-listed compared to 13 percent wait-listed from all general applicants.

Despite the outcome, Sinclair said he views the practice as a “corruption of the admissions process” and questioned how legacy or donor-recommended students stack up against the first-generation students allotted an additional review, if they receive one.

“We don’t even know for a fact that first-generation students are afforded that,” Sinclair said. “Why is the main criteria for getting this second look connection to someone who is a donor or legacy; why is that the criteria when you’re also applying that same criteria to a student who is nowhere near to that criteria?”

Virginia maintains it accepts applicants with a “broad range of viewpoints, backgrounds and life experiences,” Coy wrote. From 2014 to 2019, the university experienced a 45 percent increase in first-generation students, with 502 now enrolled in their first year, and a 29 percent increase in low-income students to 336 enrolled, he wrote. Since President James Ryan took over in 2018, there has been more of an emphasis on first-generation students, which could be because Ryan himself was once in their position, Brasacchio said.

The university increased its written commitment to students who are the first in their families to attend college in August with its 2030 strategic plan, said Ellen Bassett, chair of the Faculty Senate. The plan includes an expanded financial aid program for students who are first generation, underrepresented or low and middle income and shows Virginia’s dedication to these students, Bassett said.

Virginia also announced a $75 million scholarship and fellowship fund on Oct. 12 for first-generation undergraduate students who are in-state or from Rochester, N.Y. and New York City, where donor and businessman David Walentas is from. The university provided $20 million of its own matching funds for the program, and high schools in the state and parts of New York can nominate recipients starting in 2022, according to a university press release.

Brasacchio said she still thinks recruitment for first-generation and low-income students could be more targeted and aggressive, and the additional review process is another barrier for these students to break through.

“The fact that they even consider legacy status in our admissions process puts first-generation and low-income students at a disadvantage,” Brasacchio said. “My parents couldn’t call into the university and endorse my application. A donor wouldn’t call in and endorse my application.

“There’s a certain status of students who can use this process, and I don’t think we should be endorsing it.”

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