It’s no secret that many universities, including GW, take an applicant’s ability to pay tuition into consideration when reviewing applications. Recently, The Washington Post reported that the University of Virginia also has a “watch list” for VIP applicants. This list includes past and potential donors so that admissions staff can give certain students special consideration. Included on the list was a student who was initially denied admission to UVA. The student’s file had several notes on it, including “$500K,” “must be on waitlist” and “accept if at all possible.” The final admissions decision for this student is unknown. But with this sort of preference toward donors, a student rejected at a few of their “reach schools” – like I was – can’t help but wonder if giving a sizable donation would have pushed them over the edge to be admitted.
Unfortunately, this practice of accepting students who are likely to donate or have ties to the university is not unique to UVA. It’s part of a larger culture in college admissions coined as “affirmative action for the rich” in an anthology edited by Richard Kahlenberg. Universities, including GW, should be more transparent in their admissions process and shouldn’t base decisions on factors applicants can’t control, like the wealth of their families, but rather on their merit.
In 2013, GW faced backlash when it was revealed that officials had been incorrectly claiming the University was need-blind. Instead, admissions officers were quietly putting qualified students who needed more aid on the waitlist and accepting wealthier students in their places. More recently, the University has been criticized for lacking economic diversity in the student body. Ethically questionable admissions practices, like the method at UVA and preference for legacy students – those who are related to an alumnus – create a cycle of accepting wealthy students.
If I had done more research on GW and found out about the 2013 admissions scandal when I was applying to the University in 2015, I would have seriously reconsidered submitting my application. I want to be a part of a university that’s open and honest about its policies and past. The financial reality forcing GW to be need-aware is unfortunate but understandable, due to the fact that GW is 60 percent reliant on tuition dollars for its operating budget. But when GW lied about this policy, the issue was their dishonesty and coverup. If a story had broken that GW was engaging in similar conduct as UVA, it would have also made me reconsider my choice of university. Universities operate as businesses and need money to stay open, but blatantly factoring in the size of students’ donations when reviewing applications is wrong. By engaging in ethically murky behavior, GW risks alienating applicants.
I come from a family that has never donated to a university and believes GW’s high cost of attendance is enough money for them to give. My parents went to local universities, which I personally never considered as options, so the legacy preference was out of the question. Coming from a family like mine should not hinder someone’s chances at getting accepted into a high-ranking university. Donations are important to the University and I am grateful to those that have given money so that students can receive scholarships and programs can be funded. But donations are gifts. They are not bargaining chips and should not be treated as such in the admissions process.
Universities often publicly proclaim the need for diversity and even implement programs to achieve it. GW adopted a test-optional admissions policy in 2015 in an effort to attract more low-income and racially diverse students. But GW still gives preference to legacies who are seen as more likely to donate, making these efforts for diversity seem like part of a public facade. A preference for legacies and donors not only prevents us from improving economic diversity at GW, but often racial diversity. Underrepresented minorities make up 12.5 percent of the applicant pool at selective schools, while they make up only 6.7 percent of the legacy pool, according to Business Insider.
Some see race-based affirmative action as a counter weight to affirmative action for the elite. But applicants should be judged on merit alone. Race-based affirmative action is meant to even the scales against the opportunities wealthy whites may get. But this only makes assumptions that certain people are disadvantaged based on the single factor of race and tends to help upper middle class minorities instead of the low income students it was intended for. For example, the policy can be unfair to lower class white or Asian students who do not have access to expensive academic resources and can be put at a further disadvantage since other racial and socioeconomic groups are given a boost. The beneficiaries of legacy and donor preferences, whether they are official or unofficial policies, have likely been privileged enough to attend top-notch private universities and have been handed all the tools necessary to succeed without mom and dad pulling strings in the application process.
Many universities cite finances when explaining the need for special treatment to applicants with families likely to donate. But universities, like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that do not give legacy preference have not faced financial challenges despite a meritocratic approach to admissions, nor has the reputation as a top-tier university been tarnished. Although we have no way of knowing whether GW is guilty of similar practices to UVA, the University shouldn’t be afraid to move closer to a more meritocratic admissions process. Rather than hurting the University, the approach may attract more applicants because it will make GW stand out as one of the few universities with true integrity.
Kelly Skinner, a freshman majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
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