Making a Meaningful Commitment to Diversity

Many institutions of higher education are looking to become more inclusive. But what’s the most effective way to do that—at the University of Virginia and elsewhere?

When she first began the sorority rush process at the University of Virginia, a common question stood out to Dana Laurens (BA ’09, MPP ’10) from conversations with her peers: “Where do you summer?” 

That inquiry, Laurens said during the latest installment of Batten Expert Chats, is a memorable indicator of how much progress still needs to be made when it comes to diversity and inclusion at UVA. A first-generation college student who emigrated to Virginia from Trinidad and Tobago, Laurens majored in foreign affairs and thrived in her classes, which attracted diverse groups of students and were often taught by professors of color. As an alumna, Laurens said she’s appreciated UVA’s recent efforts toward greater inclusion, such as the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. But she’s also aware of the need for improvement. 

“We’ve done a lot of great things at UVA,” she said—“and we have more work ahead of us.”

Laurens, who is a senior associate for policy and advocacy at Education Reform Now, was joined by her colleague Michael Dannenberg, the organization’s director of strategic initiatives. The two policy advocates spoke and took questions on how universities—and UVA in particular—can make a meaningful commitment to racial and socioeconomic diversity.

To start, Dannenberg and Laurens compared UVA with the University of North Carolina on three diversity measures: access, completion, and affordability. Students at the two schools have similar median SAT scores and high school GPAs, and both schools perform well when it comes to graduation rates. But UNC is much more affordable for Pell Grant-eligible students (typically students whose household income is $60,000 or less). It also enrolls far more of them—even though its endowment is half UVA’s in size. 

In fact, “UVA typically ranks as the worst or second-worst public university in the country when it comes to low-income student enrollment,” Dannenberg said. “I suggested to Dana that if you wanted to make UVA feel better, you could put Notre Dame in there”—since Notre Dame also does poorly on access measures—“but they’re of course a private institution.”

If UVA and other universities want to combat a lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity, Laurens and Dannenberg said, they might start by eliminating two common admissions practices: legacy preference and early decision. 

Given that it admits students based on “right of birth,” legacy preference is “more pernicious,” Dannenberg said. It’s important to consider that UVA didn’t open its doors to women and minorities until the 1960s, Laurens added. “We need to think about the backgrounds of legacy students and about why [legacy preference] is something that still exists in 2020,” she said.

But early decision is also a serious problem, the advocates argued, because early decision applicants are 3.5 times as likely to be white. “Disproportionately, those who come from working class or racial minority backgrounds either A, don’t know about early decision policy, or B, can’t execute it, because with binding early decision you commit to an institution, regardless of what your financial aid package will be. Working class students need to compare financial aid packages and go to the cheapest place possible,” Danneberg explained.

UVA and other universities would also do well to offer loan-free admission to students with a household income of $60,000 or less, the advocates said. UNC has this policy, and UVA once did as well, but it recently lowered the cutoff for loan-free admission from $60,000 in household income to $30,000. Because students from low-income families have a high level of “debt aversion,” Dannenberg said, loan-free policies covering room, board, tuition, and fees are an important way to attract and enroll them. 

The University is highly capable of making loan-free offers, the advocates argued. As of 2017, UVA spent only 4.7% of its endowment annually, while many other universities spend 5% or more. A difference of 0.3% might not sound like much, Dannenberg said, but given that the University’s endowment totals $9.6 billion, even a small percentage could easily double UVA’s enrollment of Pell Grant-eligible students.

Making this kind of financial commitment is essential, in Dannenberg’s view. “It’s all about the bottom line,” he said. “You can get rid of legacy preference and early decision, but if you're still only enrolling 10% of your students from families with incomes of $60,000 a year or less, then you're not really living up to Thomas Jefferson's idea of what the University of Virginia should be.”

When seeking to increase diversity within any university, the advocates said, both internal and external pressure can make an enormous difference. In particular, they highlighted a bill in Congress called the ASPIRE Act, which would charge colleges and universities that fall in the country’s bottom 5% when it comes to low-income student enrollment a public service fee—but only if they fail to improve over the next five years.

The advocates encouraged participants to get in touch with Members of Congress from Virginia about the act and about the issue in general. Dannenberg also noted that if UVA President Jim Ryan wrote a letter—perhaps in partnership with Michael Drake, the new chancellor of the University of California system—in support of the bill, it would send a powerful message to lawmakers. Such a move would show that the University is willing to embrace a leadership role on diversity, equity, and inclusion and hold itself publicly accountable for results, he said.

From the perspective of the University community as a whole, it would also be well worth the effort, Dannenberg continued. “It's not just a matter of corrective justice,” he argued. On campuses with greater diversity, “the faculty report that they have better students and the students report that they have a better experience,” he said. “It benefits everyone.”