August 8, 2008 — The University of Virginia's top admissions official had lots of questions about how this fall's first-year class would take shape. After all, there was little precedent for a highly selective public institution doing away with its early decision program.
Would the end of the early decision program — in which students apply to one school in advance of the regular admission cycle, agreeing to attend if they are admitted — open more spots for the financially strapped students who often must review their financial-aid packages before making their choices? Would outstanding students who don't have to wait for financial aid packages commit to other schools rather than wait through the regular admissions process?
While U.Va. officials caution that the numbers are still preliminary, the picture is becoming clearer as U.Va.'s Aug. 23 "move-in day" approaches: the University's class of 2012 will look much like the previous year's, with modest progress toward the goal of increasing the economic diversity of its student body.
According to John A. Blackburn, dean of admission, the most nettlesome problem had to do with hitting the target of 3,170 incoming students. To compensate for the loss of those offered admission previously under early decision program — all of whom were guaranteed to accept, thus filling about a third of the entering class before Christmas — his office extended about 450 additional admissions offers in March. "I wasn't worried that we would go over," he said. "As it turned out, we went over.
"What happened is that within the applicant pool there were lots of students who really wanted to go to U.Va. and would have applied through early decision if we had it."
As of today, some 3,295 students had accepted offers of admission, and 3,268 had submitted completed housing contracts. When the smoke clears — international students, in particular, seem to drop out in the final weeks before the school year begins— Blackburn expects a class similar in size to last year's 3,248.
Housing the extra bodies won't be a problem. A brand-new, 192-bed first-year dormitory, Kellogg House, comes online this month, and about 80 students will live in Dobie House, which had been slated for closure this year, but will remain open.
Thus far, the entering class is seeing slight increases in the number of students from lower-income backgrounds, the major motivation behind eliminating early decision. As of Aug. 6, 186 incoming first-year students, or about 5.6 percent of the entering class, were classified as "low-income," six more than a year ago. The percentage of incoming first-year students showing any degree of need increased from 25.9 percent to 26.7 percent.
"The gains are modest, but this is only the first year of the 'post-early decision era,'" Blackburn said. "We have put a lot of effort into reaching out to lower-income students, and we plan to continue pushing to bring in great students, regardless of their economic backgrounds."
In recent years, U.Va. has launched several efforts to reach out to low-income students, consistent with its mission as a public institution. It has extensively promoted the AccessUVA financial aid program, which greatly reduces the amount of debt students take on, eliminating loans altogether for the lowest-income students. Outreach efforts like the College Guide program send recent graduates into high schools to help students find and apply to colleges and universities. This year, U.Va. joined the list of schools that use the Common Application, making it easier to apply for admission.
Once admitted, some incoming first-year students are invited to take part in the Rainey Academic Program, which offers them a chance to take classes and become acclimated to the University in the summer before their classmates arrive.
This year's entering class profile closely resembles last year's, according to the preliminary numbers. The median SAT score is up slightly, from 1,307 to 1,323; about 87.7 percent of incoming first-years finished in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, compared to 87 percent last year.
About 56 percent of the class is female, up from 55 percent a year ago. In-state students make up 66.4 percent of the class, down a touch from 68 percent last year, but a number likely to rise a bit during the expected "summer melt."
Students self-identifying as white Americans make up 61.6 percent of the class, up slightly from the 60.6 percent of last year's class, the most diverse ever admitted. Some 288 students identified themselves as African-American, within the normal range; 238 entered in 2006, an unusually low number, while 354 came in 2007, which was an unusually large number. The count of international students stood at 199 on Aug. 4, but is expected to drop by the time the official fall census is taken; last year there were 164.
Approximately 14 percent of the class are children of U.Va. alumni, which Blackburn described as "typical."'
All in all, the quality of the class appears to be largely unaffected by the demise of early decision. "I feel good about the overall response of the students," Blackburn said. "They really wanted to be here."