Words and Deeds: University of Virginia


September 29, 2020

By: Katlyn Riggins 

The University of Virginia (UVA) is no stranger when it comes to the fight for racial justice. 

The infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville left a scar on the university’s campus. The violence in Charlottesville accelerated the removal of Confederate statues from several U.S. cities, and UVA’s Board of Trustees voted to remove two plaques from the university’s Rotunda that honored alumni who fought for the Confederacy. 

Earlier this month, UVA’s Racial Equity Task Force released a report making several recommendations to commit seriously to racial equity, including that “[UVA] should strive to reflect the racial and economic demographics of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” We agree.

After the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, UVA’s President, James Ryan, issued the following statement: 

Through the hard work of many students, faculty, and staff–not to mention the persistent advocacy of alumni and community members–UVA is a better place today than it was a decade ago, or the decade before that. But there is more work to do in order for UVA to look more like the state and country in which we live; in order for UVA to be a trusted neighbor to the Charlottesville region; and in order for all students, faculty, and staff to have their voices and their presence equally valued, respected, and included in their everyday lives. 

Again, Ryan states “UVA is a better place today than it was a decade ago.” Is it better with respect to evidencing a meaningful commitment to racial diversity and socioeconomic mobility?

According to data the university submits to the U.S. Department of Education, Black enrollment at UVA fell during the first half of this decade before slowly rising over the past few years. 

In 2018, the most recent year for which public nationwide data is available, the share of African-American students at UVA was almost 15% lower than it was in 2010. There were 101 fewer Black students enrolled at UVA in 2018 than in 2010. This is a state where more than 22% of 18-24-year-olds is African-American.

Let’s look at the economic data. UVA has made a small improvement in enrolling low-income and working-class students, but it still lags far behind most public universities here. 

Consider Pell Grant student enrollment. Pell Grants typically go to students who come from families earning $60,000 per year or less. There are tens of thousands of students nationwide who are low-income and highly qualified to attend schools like UVA. One in five students who score in the 90th percentile and higher on national admissions tests like the ACT and SAT comes from a Pell Grant eligible family. Barely 12% of UVA students are Pell Grant recipients.

As per 2017 Pell Grant data, widely outperforming UVA on working class and low-income student enrollment are the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (57% higher), University of Michigan (35% higher), and Clemson University (30% higher) — all of which have similar academic admissions standards to UVA. 

While other selective colleges have increased their low-income student enrollment in past years, UVA’s 12% Pell enrollment has barely ticked up the past decade. Its share of Pell Grant recipients is worse than every school in the Ivy League. It ranks among the bottom 5% of all colleges nationwide when it comes to Pell Grant student enrollment. And UVA is a public college.

It’s nice to read and hear UVA and its President restate their commitment to racial justice and diversity. We’ll believe that commitment is sincere when we see a meaningful commitment to diversity and racial justice evidenced on campus in terms of enrollment as well as completion. 

Nice words are just that: nice. Actions speak louder.