The University of Virginia’s fundraising team for years has sought to help children of wealthy alumni and prominent donors who apply for admission, flagging their cases internally for special handling, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
The records from the U-Va. advancement office, which oversees fundraising for the prestigious public flagship, reveal nearly a decade of efforts to monitor admission bids and in some cases assist those in jeopardy of rejection.
U-Va. denies that the advancement office held any sway over admissions decisions. But the documents show the office kept meticulous notes on the status of certain VIP applicants and steps taken on their behalf.
Within U-Va., the records were known as an annual “watch list.” They provide a case study of what is regarded as an open secret in higher education: that schools do pay attention when an applicant’s family has given them money — or might in the future.
The 2011 list, for example, shows that one hopeful was initially marked as denied. Then an advancement officer scribbled a handwritten note on the tracking file: “$500k.” A typed notation said “must be on WL,” for wait list. A final handwritten note urged, “if at all possible A,” for accepted. The final decision on the applicant was not shown.
The 2013 records show a donor’s dismay after an applicant was put on the wait list. “According to people who have talked to him, [the person] is livid about the WL decision and holding future giving in the balance,” an advancement officer wrote in the tracking file. “Best to resolve quickly, if possible.”
The documents — 164 pages, mostly spreadsheets, covering data from 2008 to this year — do not include any records from the U-Va. admission office. Names of applicants and their relatives, and many other details, were redacted.
U-Va. declined to make admissions or advancement officials available for an interview, and declined to answer written questions about specific cases in the files. But a university spokesman denied that fundraising concerns factor into admission decisions.
“The Office of Advancement is occasionally contacted by alumni, friends and supporters recommending students who have an interest in attending U-Va.,” spokesman Anthony de Bruyn wrote in a statement to The Post. “Such a practice is not unique to U-Va. 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.”
Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides scholarships to students from low-income families, said it would be “shocking” for coordination between fundraisers and admissions staff to occur “at an institution like the University of Virginia.”
But Levy said wealthy students often get special treatment from elite colleges. He noted that only 3 percent of the enrollment at the 94 schools rated as “most selective” by Barron’s — which includes U-Va. — come from the bottom income quartile. By comparison, Levy said, 72 percent of students at those schools come from the top quartile.
Levy said the fact that U-Va. keeps a list of applicants from wealthy families indicated to him that it’s not coincidental that the vast majority of the students represent the top tax brackets.
“Until now colleges have insisted that it was accidental and happenstance,” Levy said. “But this puts a new light on it.”
U-Va. is perennially one of the most selective public universities in the country. In late March, the university announced that a record 36,807 students had applied to enter as freshmen. Of those, 9,957 were accepted, for an admission rate of 27 percent.
The documents obtained by The Post show that at least 59 applicants for the incoming class of 2021 were tracked by the advancement office. How many were offered admission is unknown.
Angel Perez, vice president for enrollment at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., said it’s common for universities to track applicants who come from prominent families, especially those who are donors.
“It happens at every institution I’ve been at,” Perez said. But he added that “you don’t buy your way into an institution. That’s not how it works. . . . There’s plenty of students we turned away at Trinity this year that the development office would have loved for us to admit.”
The Post received the documents from author Jeff Thomas, who recently obtained them through a Freedom of Information Act request as part of the research for his 2016 book “Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power.”
U-Va. is among the richest schools in the nation, with an endowment exceeding $5.8 billion, more than some Ivy League schools have amassed.
U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan, in office since 2010, has made fundraising a priority. Among other goals, she wants more resources to support financial aid for students in need. But federal data show a relatively low share of U-Va. students qualified for need-based Pell grants in 2015: 13 percent. The share is much higher at many other public universities.
The documents suggest that the advancement office had broad knowledge about the status of applications on the watch list and contacts between the applicants and the school. Records show dozens of interactions between applicants and top members of the administration, including numerous instances involving academic deans and even Sullivan.
Overall, the documents show significant efforts that the administration made to charm the applicants.
“Has met personally with President Sullivan,” one notation said about an applicant. “Wayne Smith hosted [name redacted] and his father on a visit to grounds,” the note continued, referring to the university’s athletic capital campaign director.
“Major supporter of the university,” a note indicated next to another applicant’s name. “Family has deep connections,” said another.
For the applicant whose file included the “$500K” note, another observation was included: the candidate’s mother was “BFF,” meaning best friends forever, and “sorority sister” with another individual whose name was redacted.
The advancement office notes for a 2011 applicant showed that the candidate had met with Sean Jenkins, the senior assistant to Sullivan, as well as Jeff Boyd, who was then serving as a senior associate director in the development office. The applicant was marked as denied, but an advancement officer wrote above the file a figure: “$140K.”
“Could push,” the applicant’s file said. “Jeff Boyd says at least W.L. D to A? WL?” (D means denial.)
Another applicant, considered a “strong-out-state student” according to the file, had been put on the wait list. But an advancement officer then penned a handwritten note: “Working on a significant bequest w/UVA.” The final notation: “HWL-A” for “high wait list” and “A” for accept.”
The files also note that some candidates facing likely rejection could be let down gently through a decision described as a “courtesy” wait-list offer.
Perez, of Trinity, acknowledged that “college admissions at a highly selective institution is not a meritocracy.” A number of factors are considered during admissions, he said, including the needs of athletic coaches, the preferences of professors seeking researchers for their labs — and the desires of fundraisers.
Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment at DePaul University, said an applicant’s family history of donations is vitally important to admissions offices everywhere. At most colleges, he said, the two departments are in constant contact.
“I think it’s pretty obvious to a lot of people that the ability to donate large sums of money or a history of doing so has a huge effect on admissions at the top institutions in the country,” Boeckenstedt said. “This happens frequently.”
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