University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan said she has personally written letters to the principals of 80 high schools in low-income areas of the state in an effort to aggressively recruit a more diverse student body.
The university also is sending personalized text messages to high-achieving students with financial need to guide them through the admissions and aid processes, Sullivan told a meeting Monday of the Kiwanis Club of Richmond.
Too many students are scared off by a college’s sticker price, she said, and the greatest financial aid program won’t help if students don’t know it exists.
She said she told the principals “U.Va. is possible for students from your school, and we’d like you to start bringing some of your best students to visit the Grounds.”
She also said she has encouraged Richmond-area schools to nominate more students for the university’s Jefferson Scholar program.
U.Va. has been criticized as lacking diversity—a report last year by the New America Foundation said it is one of the nation’s least socioeconomically diverse public schools. The university, which has a $6 billion endowment, also is under fire for changes to its AccessUVA financial aid program that for the first time will include loans for the lowest-income students.
At a luncheon talk at the Virginia Historical Society, Sullivan used an anecdote from her family to explain why she believes diversity is important.
“My father-in-law loaded barges on the Mississippi River,” she said. He was a hardworking man who “built their family home with his own hands” and was determined his son would go to college even though he hadn’t.
Her husband, U.Va. law professor Douglas Laycock, went to college on a scholarship from his father’s union and then attended law school at the University of Chicago.
In a class discussion on zoning regulations, his classmates from Ivy League schools saw no problem prohibiting homes with what they considered a low square footage because they argued no family could live in a house so small.
“He raised his hand and said, ‘No, our family’s home was about half that size,” Sullivan said. When his classmates insisted that could not be, he told them he knew the size because his father had built the house.
What was eye-opening then is more important today, she said.
“The world is not homogeneous. The United States is not homogenous,” she said. “Your college experience should not be homogenous because we’re not preparing you for the world of work if everybody you’re with is just like you.”
Sullivan, who said she got home from Raleigh, N.C., at 3 a.m. after watching the Cavaliers advance to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, was welcomed to the meeting with a rendition of U.Va.’s “The Good Old Song” and an invocation that included a prayer to “watch over the Wahoos.”
But she received a couple of pointed questions after her talk, including whether diversity meant lowering the university’s standards.
Acknowledging admission to U.Va. is difficult, she said applicants receive “a holistic review” that considers individual circumstances.
“We don’t just look at test scores. We don’t just look at grades,” she said.
Students are evaluated based on the curriculum at their high school and whether “they’ve done the best they could with what they have.”
Sometimes those students do need extra support their first semester, “but we find they do very well,” she said.
Sullivan also was asked about criticism from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni—an advocacy group that supported an attempt to fire her in 2012—over the fairness of her salary amid tuition increases and changes to AccessUVA.
Sullivan responded that she has supported the program from her salary and that the “small adjustment” to add loans was necessary to keep AccessUVA sustainable.
The program, beginning this fall, will include $3,500 loans in the annual aid packages for first-year students with the most financial need.
Currently, those students graduate without loans.
Including loans in aid packages is not unusual, she said. “What is unusual is this loan is so small and most of your education is still free.”