On money and admissions

Does how much money your family has make a difference when it comes to college admissions?

Well, yeah, of course. But not in the way you may think.

This weekend the Washington Post ran a story about the "watch list" that the office of development (that means fundraising) at the University of Virginia runs to keep up with applicants who come from families who donate--or may donate--lots of money. The office of development is separate from the office of admissions.

A lot of people see the exposure of this watch list as proof of the horrible truth that donors get special treatment, even at public institutions like UVA. But when I look at the details of the story, I actually get a little less cynical. 

From the article: "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." 

So yes, the fundraising people at UVA keep tabs on the big-donor applicants and try to influence the admissions people. However, if all half a million dollars gets you is to be moved from "denied" to the "waitlist," with a polite request for an acceptance "if at all possible," then this shows that the admissions decisions are pretty darn independent, or at least that it takes a whole lot of money to skew their decision. 

According to the story, over 36,000 people applied to UVA this year, and 9,957 were admitted. Of those 36,807 applicants, only 59 are known to have been on the watch list. Being on the watch list doesn't guarantee you anything, and often leads to nothing more than a "courtesy wait-list offer." (Don't worry doing the calculation, I did it for you. 0.16% of the UVA applicants were on the watch list for big-money donors. Even if all 59 of them got accepted for no other reason than their donations, it would still be 0.59% of accepted students. That's more than 0%, where it should be, but not a whole lot more.)

I think it's ok to assume that the person sitting next to you in class at UVA--or most anywhere--didn't just buy their way in.


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