University of Virginia applicants whose parents are rich enough to make a substantial donation to the school sometimes have an advantage in admissions, U-Va. officials acknowledged last week, after the student newspaper published documents showing how the university tracks such candidates.
The school's development office, which is in charge of fund-raising, keeps a list of such applicants and gives their parents a rating of "A," "B" or "C," depending on the size of the gift they might make. The "A" rating goes to parents who have the potential to donate at least $10 million, the "C" rating to those able to give at least $1 million.
University officials said the admissions office does not see such ratings. But the names on the list are discussed at an annual meeting between the head of admissions and a representative from the U-Va. president's office, and in a few cases, an applicant's chances are improved, school officials said.
"I always want to know what this potential donation will mean to U-Va. and how will it benefit our students," said John A. Blackburn, the school's dean of admissions. He said that if the possible gift would strengthen the university in the future, "there are a few cases where I will actually change the decision."
The university never admits a student on the condition that the parents make a donation, Blackburn said.
Admissions officers at several other selective colleges said they, too, occasionally give preference to an applicant from a wealthy and generous family if they are convinced that the student is academically qualified. Officials often refer to such cases as "VIP admits."
But Thomas Lifka, assistant vice chancellor for student academic services at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the board of regents of the University of California system banned VIP admissions, except with special faculty approval, after it ended race-based preferences in admissions decisions.
The idea, Lifka said, was to show that the regents were taking a stand against favoritism of all kinds.
John Seabreeze, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland, said his office gets word of applicants from wealthy and prominent families and keeps track of them. But the school's policy is not to give those applicants preference in admission, he said.
"I am not saying it has not happened or never happened, but it is not something we practice," Seabreeze said. He said the tracking allows the university to warn prominent donors if the applicant they recommended is going to be rejected.
U-Va. spokeswoman Louise Dudley said the school last year tracked 92 applicants whose families might make substantial gifts to the school. Twenty of those, or 22 percent, were accepted. Blackburn said he did not know how many of those 20 students might otherwise have been rejected. U-Va.'s overall acceptance rate last year was 34 percent.
The U-Va. president's office also keeps a list of applicants who were recommended by elected officials or friends of the university. Of the 412 applicants singled out last year because of wealth or important connections, 47 percent were offered admission, Dudley said.
Last week, the U-Va. student paper, the Cavalier Daily, published three memos from the university's development office that described applicants whose parents were likely to be generous donors. Rakesh Gopalan, associate editor of the newspaper, said the paper obtained the documents from confidential sources.
One applicant was described as the son of a 1974 U-Va. graduate who had made "a $50,000 commitment to the Dean's Endowment for Academic Excellence" and who was "the heiress to a good part of the Smithfield Foods fortune." Another applicant's father was called "an heir to the Boeing Family fortune."
The father of a third applicant was rated a potential "C" giver, although "his inclination to participate in the [fund-raising] Campaign is low." An uncle of the same applicant, a 1953 U-Va. graduate, had made a $100,000 pledge to the school, and the memo said that if the applicant was to attend U-Va., "we believe . . . his father would make a significant gift."
Officials at Cornell University, Harvard University and the University of Michigan said they occasionally give preference to applicants with rich and generous parents. They said that in almost all cases, the families involved have long-standing ties to the university.
"We are talking about commitment and involvement, and not just dollars," said Nancy Hargrave Meislahn, director of undergraduate admissions at Cornell.