A New “Landscape” for UVa Admissions

Credit: Bing Image creator. College landscape in the style of William Constable.

by Walter Smith

With the recent U.S. Supreme Court restricting “affirmative action” in college and university admissions, an all-consuming question in Charlottesville is how the University of Virginia might change its policies and guidelines for admitting students.

While prohibiting the use of race as a decisive factor in admissions, Supreme Court Justice John Roberts allowed for holistic reviews that took into account race as part of an applicant’s sum-of-life experiences. Harvard University announced it intends to drive a truck through that loophole. Likewise, UVa President Jim Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom, who last week proclaimed their intent to ignore the ruling as much as possible, have not only lined up a truck but are revving up the engine.

The admissions process at UVa is opaque. The administration has refused, repeatedly, to provide me data concerning students admitted for the fall of 2023 or to answer my deep-dive questions for admissions in 2022, regarding which the Admissions Office was very cooperative… until it wasn’t. In particular, the Office has not been forthcoming about its use of a tool, “Landscape,” developed by the College Board, the same people who administer the SAT exams.

The College Board describes Landscape benignly as “consistent, data-driven information to help colleges … understand an applicant’s accomplishments in the context of the opportunities available to them.” Originally, the Board developed an “adversity index” that colleges could use to give preference to applicants who had overcome hardship, but the idea created a furor, and the Board scrapped it. Landscape took its place.

As I understand it, the tool supplies two numbers for an applicant: (1) a “School” score which apparently rates the applicant against other students from the school; and (2) a “Neighborhood” score which apparently is inversely scored against the desirability of the applicant’s neighborhood.

I say “apparently” because UVa has declined to confirm my understanding of Landscape or explain how it is used. It has refused to allow me to run hypotheticals on the platform, and it has refused to state if the database was used to cull the 51,000 applications for the 2023-24 academic year to a more manageable number for “holistic” reviews.

UVa, like many other “elite” schools, has dropped the SAT as a requirement. Nonetheless, roughly 30% of applicants for the 2022 entering class (the last year for which Admissions responded to my requests for data) submitted their scores. Black applicants had the highest offer rate of 29% even though their Mean SAT scores were roughly 100 points lower than that of other racial classifications. Of Whites, Asian, Hispanic and Black, Whites had the lowest offer rate at 17%. “Race Unknown” had a higher rate than Whites! In a recent article in The Daily Progress, UVA asserted that it was not lowering standards and that the 2019 entering class had a Mean SAT of 1409.

Under the new admissions regime, UVA will, in theory, do a “holistic review” of its applicants. The number of applicants exploded to 51,000 in 2023 thanks to the adoption of the Common Application, which made it easier than ever for students to submit applications to multiple colleges.

How big of a staff do you need to do a true “holistic review” of 51,000 unique individuals? There must be some way to winnow the herd.

UVa repeatedly told me there was no minimum Landscape score. How, then, is Landscape used? How does UVa ensure a consistent standard for all applicants? Is it acceptable for one reviewer to use a combined Landscape score of 60 and another a score of 80? If so, how much weight are the scores given?

College Board insists that Landscape is not an “adversity index.” States the Board: “This is not an adversity score. Landscape does not measure adversity and never will. It simply helps admissions officers better understand the high schools and neighborhoods applicants come from. It does not help them understand an applicant’s individual circumstances, their personal stories, hardships, or home life.”

What good is a tool that measures the “general neighborhood and high school information,” if it says nothing about the experience of any particular applicant?

Here is the question that I think blows up the charade: if I plug the same person into Landscape and change only the school and the zip code, will different scores result?

You know the answer, and so do I, which is why UVA will not allow me access to Landscape. Perhaps the BOV will look into this question.

Walter Smith chairs The Jefferson Council committee on research and analysis.