Class Struggle Does it matter if you're white or black? From a rich family or a poor one? When it comes to college admissions, it sure does. But whether you're lucky matters too. An inside look at how the University of Virginia selected its class of 2004.
By Amy Dockser Marcus

(MONEY Magazine) – Thomas Jefferson considered himself the father of the University of Virginia, and like any father he left a complicated legacy. "Our university is the last of my mortal cares and the last service I can render to my country," Jefferson wrote to a friend. Every day he rode from his Monticello estate down the road to oversee construction on the campus. When ill health or bad weather kept him away, he would watch through a spyglass. o For Jefferson, the university was to be a model of his vision of public education: a selective college, elite enough to attract the best students but open enough to admit students who weren't rich. o But he also bequeathed something else to the university: slavery and its consequences. In 1827, a few months after Jefferson died, his heirs held a five-day sale of all his assets. Along with prints and farm equipment, 130 slaves were put up for sale. A dozen were purchased by UVA professors. One slave, Thrimston Hern, whom Jefferson had trained as a stonecutter, became the property of UVA's proctor for $600. Hern helped build the stairs on the Rotunda, the building Jefferson proudly modeled on the Roman Pantheon.

Today UVA is commited to admitting significant numbers of African-American students, partly because of what happened to Thrimston Hern and others like him. But several courts have ruled that colleges cannot use racial preferences in admissions to correct historic injustices. Challenged both from the outside by the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank, and from the inside by a special university committee, UVA dean of admissions John A. Blackburn and his staff had to devise a new way to select the class of 2004.

University officials allowed me to sit in on two admissions committee meetings as decisions were made to admit or reject borderline students, with the condition that I not use the names of students. In one sense, then, this is the story of how a particular class was chosen. But college admission is more than a rite of passage into adulthood for students and an assessment of their promise and accomplishments; it is also a weighing of what society values. And in that respect, Blackburn and his peers still wrestle with an issue that confronted Jefferson: How can a school remain elite and also be diverse?

Jefferson's answer was to emphasize academic achievement. He envisioned early schooling as a series of academic challenges open to all--all white males, that is. The winners would gain admission to UVA. This audacious plan ultimately failed.

As I observed the admissions process, I came to wonder whether today's attempts to achieve both selectivity and diversity--to create a class with fine scholars, winning athletes, children of alumni, students of varying ethnicity and class--work any better. Jefferson called the students who got to the top of his system "natural aristocrats." Today, it seems, they may be more akin to winners in a giant lottery.

Terence Ross' office at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher in downtown Washington, D.C. is filled with pictures that attest to what can happen when you hold one of the winning tickets: Ross in black tie standing next to President George Bush. Ross in black tie, standing next to former Virginia Governor George Allen. There is also a framed certificate commemorating Ross' appointment to UVA's Board of Visitors, an honor he owes to his friendship with Governor Allen, whom he met when they were law students at UVA. This history is why, in January 1999, a few days after the Center for Equal Opportunity accused the university of illegal admissions practices, Ross found himself heading a probe of the admissions process.

The law of the land remains the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Bakke case in 1978 allowing colleges to consider race in making admissions decisions, but only as one factor among many. In the past few years, various courts have interpreted the ruling differently, and no university is certain how far it can go without violating the federal constitution.

Ross focused immediately on UVA's six-year-old rating system. Every applicant was given a numerical score in eight categories--three points for scoring 1,300 or above on the SATs and taking a strong academic program in high school, two for great writing on the application essays, two more for ranking in the top 1% or 2% of his or her high school class. None of this bothered Ross, who lives in Alexandria and was appointed in part to represent the sensibilities of affluent northern Virginia, home to about 25% of UVA undergrads.

What did trouble Ross was learning that the rating system awarded applicants two points simply for being African American. (Some Hispanics also received bonus points, says Blackburn, but Asian Americans did not because they are not considered "underrepresented minorities.") "It took about 30 seconds for me to realize that this was a serious problem that could be misconstrued," Ross recalls. "We came to the conclusion that the point system had to go."

Ross soon became a lightning rod for criticism both inside and outside the university. Last September, he gave an interview to the local newspaper in which he was quoted as saying, "We are clearly in some cases reaching down in our academic standards to recruit black students." The article caused a furor. The NAACP called--unsuccessfully--for his ouster from the board. In the admissions office, Blackburn and his colleagues privately fumed about the publicity.

But fishing out a copy of the article from among other press clips he keeps at the office, Ross is unrepentant. "I was accurately quoted," he says. "But I was peeved that no one includes the second sentence of my quote." He points to it and reads aloud: "We do not want to give up on affirmative action, but we have to do it in a way that is legal."

One of Ross' most vociferous critics was M. Rick Turner, the dean of UVA's office of African-American students. In public forums, he pointed out that the graduation rate among African Americans at UVA is 87%, the highest in the country among public universities--proof, he said, that the point system worked.

In his office, cluttered with books and stacks of paper and decorated with posters of sayings by prominent African Americans, Turner expresses his views forcefully: "I tell our first-year students that they are miracles. Having them come to UVA was never the plan. When you lock people out 400 years, the plan is for you to do nothing but chop cotton and sugarcane and clean people's toilets."

Turner contends that the fight against affirmative action is driven by a misplaced sense of entitlement on the part of upper-middle-class white parents, ones a lot like Terence Ross. Having invested in good schools and SAT prep courses, Turner argues, they feel a seat in UVA's freshman class is their due. "If daddy gives money to UVA, it's all right for his child to get in--that's not considered affirmative action," Turner says. "But when a black student gets in," he adds, leaning forward, "they're all thinking, 'He took the place of some white boy.'"

Across campus at Miller Hall, the unassuming brick building where the admissions office is housed, Blackburn and his 11-person staff tried to figure out how to respond to these pressures and avoid a dramatic drop in the number of African Americans admitted. With Ross' support, a new director of minority recruitment was on board, two African Americans had been hired to go into minority students' homes and talk about UVA, and a toll-free number had been set up to enable low-income students to call for information. There was even a new essay question on the application asking students about the effect of discrimination on their lives.

But Blackburn was worried. In mid-January, the office learned that the number of African Americans applying for admission had fallen 25% to 1,001, a steep decline the university attributed to the point system controversy and to a rise in the application fee from $40 to $60. The previous year, 284 African Americans had enrolled, and Blackburn certainly didn't want many fewer this year. But with a much smaller pool from which to choose, it would be hard to maintain those numbers without admitting kids with weaker academic records.

That wasn't the only thing troubling the admissions officers. In consultation with the school's lawyers, they had replaced the point system with a sheet listing the qualities UVA wanted. Beside each entry was a scale, strong to weak, and each reader was supposed to check where the student fell on the scale. The sheet included grades and test scores but focused more on intangibles designed to widen the pool of candidates: a love of learning, for example, and strong leadership qualities.

But the system remained frustratingly imprecise. "Everyone stayed in the center with their check marks," recalls associate dean Lawrence Groves. "[The form] didn't permit making the kind of distinctions we needed." Since most students fell somewhere in the middle, the admissions committee was pulled in different directions by its own multiple, often conflicting, aims.

That became especially clear at a February meeting when 15 staff members and application readers gathered to consider a few borderline applicants. By that time, 847 out of the 1,862 candidates who'd applied for early decision had been given preliminary offers; among them were 664 whites, 118 Asian Americans, 26 African Americans and 25 Hispanics. That left 13,000 applicants competing for only 2,070 spots. The vast majority would be admitted or rejected on the judgment of two readers and a top dean. If they took more students from the overwhelmingly white, affluent early-decision pool, the class would not be diverse enough. But if they relaxed academic standards too much, they risked eroding UVA's status as an elite school.

Both concerns were in evidence as the group focused on 15 candidates, neither clear admits nor clear rejects, who'd been referred to the full committee. It was stuffy in the top-floor meeting room at Miller Hall that afternoon. Blackburn, always meticulously dressed, had rolled up his sleeves as a concession to the heat, and everyone sipped sodas and juice. As the stack of folders before Blackburn grew smaller, it became increasingly evident how imprecise the line can be between admission and rejection, especially for difficult cases.

There were very few conventional stories. Only two white, suburban kids from traditional homes were before the committee; both ended up on the waiting list. The least conventional story came from a white student who wrote about overcoming alcohol and cocaine addictions. "I think other students will really learn life lessons from him," one dean explained as he joined the majority voting to admit.

The toughest case of the afternoon was an African-American woman. Her SAT scores were low, with a combined math and verbal score of 1,080. Her achievement test scores were unimpressive. Her grades were mainly Bs and Cs, and she had dropped an advanced placement course midyear. "The question we have to ask ourselves is, are her personal qualities enough to offset this?" summed up Blackburn as he passed around the sheets listing her statistics.

"This person is going to get a rude awakening here," said Parke Muth, a senior assistant dean. As an undergraduate, Muth had been one of the few white sprinters on UVA's track team, and he says his interaction with his black teammates helped shape his support for affirmative action. But he'd watched many struggle with academics and questioned whether this woman was going to make it: "Are we really doing her a favor by admitting her? We're saying it's okay, you've taken a really weak program, and now you have to take five courses plus a lab here."

Senior dean Stephen Farmer wasn't so sure. He had grown up in rural Virginia, the son of working-class white parents who had not gone to college. As a boy, he remembered white officials opposed to integration urging his father to send him to an all-white private academy; his father refused. He had gone to Duke on scholarship. When he looked at this woman's folder, he saw potential. He pointed out that her guidance counselor supported her and said she was ambitious and a bridge builder, moving easily between different groups.

Rolanda Burney, an assistant dean who had been in charge of minority recruitment at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, was quiet during much of the debate. She didn't want to admit anyone who might fail. "We always create stories about people when we read their folders," she said. "The story I get here is the sense she would be disillusioned from her first bad grade and give up." (She said later that the debate reminded her of the pain she'd felt as a high school senior when she told a white classmate she'd gotten into UNC at Chapel Hill and heard back, "You got in because you're black.")

But Blackburn was clearly leaning toward admission, and his opinion carried weight. It wasn't that he was especially enthusiastic about this particular candidate--none of the deans were. But he seemed to accept her guidance counselor's confidence that, despite her undistinguished academic record, this student could do the work at UVA. "Rolanda," he said to Burney, "you should take more comfort admitting a student like this. I've seen hundreds of African Americans come in here with scores like this, and we lose very few." When Blackburn called for a vote, Muth cast the only one to reject. Burney and two others voted to put her on the waiting list. The rest voted to admit.

An Asian-American student who came up for consideration a bit later proved to be an interesting counterpoint. She had better grades and higher test scores and would be the first in her family to go to college. But Blackburn's first impression hadn't been positive. "She has a 3.7 grade point average on the cusp," was the way he introduced this candidate. "Typically we're not offering to people with 3.7s."

Muth came to the student's defense, arguing that she was being judged more harshly than other minority candidates because UVA gets so many topnotch Asian-American applicants: "When other first-generation college kids write unsophisticated essays, we say, she's first generation, that's okay. But when she's Asian, we say, oh no." In the end, Blackburn and the others were persuaded, and she was admitted.

Blackburn encourages his staff to champion students, to get personal: "Otherwise, a computer could be doing this." Muth took him at his word, arguing in favor of a white male from an out-of-state private school. The student wanted to major in English, as Muth had. He loved drama and acting; so did Muth. "He had a voice on his application," Muth said. And after being deferred from early decision, the boy had written a passionate letter affirming his desire to go to UVA. "It's hard not to be moved when you see something like that," Muth added.

The candidate's guidance counselor had called Muth three times and written letters urging that the boy be accepted. His test scores were terrific and his grades now put him at the top of his class--but he'd had low grades in ninth and 10th grades. Muth argued that the boy deserved a second chance.

The committee chose not to give him one. Explains Blackburn: "You compare him to a kid who has done everything right all the way through, and you say, 'Which of these kids do we take?' We can't take them all."

Looking back on the discussion, Muth says he feels that UVA watches out for the interests of minorities and low-income whites. But it's hard, he points out, for a middle-class or upper-middle-class kid with good grades and scores and extracurricular activities to stand out when there are so many similar candidates. "Sometimes," Muth adds, "I feel that unless you walk on water and have a special hook, it's all over."

Today Blackburn concedes that the boy probably would have been admitted had he been a minority: "I suppose with black students who have turned the corner and pulled up in the 11th and 12th after a mediocre ninth and 10th, it's fair to say they'd have a better chance of getting in than someone who is not black."

And that, says Blackburn, is the way it should be. He is not alone at UVA. John Casteen, UVA's president, has supported the admissions office's strenuous efforts to admit minority candidates. A root cause of African Americans' poor academic performance, he says, was the state's action in 1958, when Virginia officials padlocked school doors rather than obey a Supreme Court order to integrate.

UVA's new admissions system seems unlikely to end the battles over affirmative action. While both Blackburn and Ross call the class of 2004 "one of the strongest classes ever" in terms of test scores, grade point averages and class rankings, the mean SAT score for successful African-American applicants dropped to 1,127 from 1,149 the year before. And more than 60% of African-American applicants were admitted vs. 31% of whites.

What bothers Blackburn most about attacks on the university's search for diversity, he says, is that the focus on race obscures the fact that many kinds of kids, not just minorities, are admitted to college for reasons other than academic merit. The truth, he says, is in the numbers: The class of 2004 includes 299 African Americans, 10.2% of the class. (About 50% of those admitted went elsewhere. "We lost a lot of good folks," says Valerie Gregory, head of minority recruitment--including nine to Duke, seven each to Harvard and Stanford and six to Yale.) About 12% of the class is made up of 346 children of alumni, or legacies; out-of-state legacies are treated like Virginians, with lower standards for test scores and grades. So are children of faculty and staff. In addition, Blackburn points out, 137 seats went to recruited athletes and 60 to what admissions calls "special concern" cases--students whose parents give money to the school or who are sponsored by members of the state legislature. "There are probably more seats being filled by alumni children than affirmative action cases," says Blackburn. "Then if you take [special concern] cases, recruited athletes," his voice trails off. "There are many more people [than minorities] in our institutions who didn't come through the most rigorous screen for admission."

The reality, then, is that college admissions can be far more idiosyncratic--and far less objective--than most of us on the outside believe. It can turn on something you, the student, accomplished--or on things over which you have no control, from the color of your skin or your parent's wealth to whether your personal history strikes a chord with an admissions officer.

And that's hard for many of us to accept. Senior dean Farmer suggests one reason college admissions arouses so much anger: "For a lot of kids, this is their first experience with the hard adult world, where you try and you try and you try and you still end up getting frustrated." But the feelings involved in the backlash against affirmative action are more complex than that. We have become so invested in the notion that we--and our children--have been selected on the merits that we refuse to give it up. To do so would mean acknowledging something else about the adult world that has not changed since Jefferson's time: When it comes to college admission, and so many other events that shape our lives, we are often not so much deserving as lucky.