Malter to Roth: “Give the Student Solution a Chance”

WSA president calls for student task force on need-blind changes, blasts “Token Transparency”

When President Roth met with concerned students last month regarding Wesleyan’s move away from need-blind admissions, he expressed a firm willingness to consider student proposals and hear out alternative solutions. In a provocative recent post on the WSA blog, President Zachary Malter ’13 accepts the challenge, calling on Roth to rise “beyond token transparency”—in short, to give students a legitimate voice in policy-making before finalizing any measures. At the heart of Malter’s proposal is the creation of a student task force—the Student Budget Sustainability Task Force—to take on the role.

Malter begins by outlining Roth’s proposal, then articulating the core reasons so many oppose it: in short, “how can Wesleyan criticize and challenge socio-economic inequality, if its admissions policy reinforces that very inequality by offering an advantage to students from wealthier families?” The popular retort is that it is merely a “necessary evil,” that there is no better alternative. Malter, among others, is not so sure—in large part because the budgetary details have not been made available:

Whether there is more room for cost-savings and revenue generation that does not significantly compromise the quality of education remains an open question. President Roth claims that the administration has already made all the possible cuts of inessentials and has already explored all the possible revenue generating options. But what if students had the chance to brainstorm cost-saving measures and give direct budget input?

Well, what if? The solution is to tap into Wesleyan’s most valuable resource: its students. So simple it’s brilliant, Malter’s proposal replaces the rhetoric of transparency with the practice. Perhaps most significantly, the WSA president calls for all need-blind-related decisions to be postponed until the new task force presents to the Board in November:

I am proposing the creation of a Student Budget Sustainability Task Force, charged with identifying areas for cuts and devising creative ideas for new revenue and costs savings. This group of committed students would meet intensively and work assiduously to make recommendations to the administration before the Board of Trustees meets again in November, and no need-blind related decisions should be finalized until then.

What’s more, Malter concludes, the educational experience of the Task Force encapsulates the “practical idealism” at the core of Wesleyan’s mission. I’m inclined to agree: we talk much about “practical idealism” as an institutional identity, but there is a strong sense of defeatism in accepting measures that seem ethically questionable as “necessary evils” because, well, they are said to be “necessary.” Malter’s proposal bears strong echo of the events of 1992, the last time a coalition of students and faculty fought to preserve need-blind admissions by devising an alternate—and better—economic plan.

But Malter tempers his idealism with—well, practicality. “Creating the Budget Sustainability Task Force does not guarantee any major results,” he concedes, but it still has value in and of itself: “the administration should give the student solution a chance, going beyond token transparency to empower students to help meaningfully address Wesleyan’s financial issues.” (Listen to this dude Rufus. He knows what he’s talking about.)

Malter isn’t the only figure offering commentary on Wesleyan’s need-aware shift during the usually quiet summer months, nor the most provocative. Over at “Stop Selling Seats,” Robert J. Alvarez ’96, a central figure in the protest of 1992 who went on to a career in finance, has posted his own assessment of Wesleyan’s financial standing based on the “Annual Financial Reports” available on the University website. (Disclosure: I encouraged Alvarez to write this report.) Alvarez begins with Roth’s assertion that “over the past 20 years, the percentage of the tuition charges that goes to financial aid has risen steadily,” becoming unsustainable. Not so, Alvarez argues: “what is striking about this percentage of tuition spent on scholarships is how stable it has been over time, rather than rising.” That’s not to say Wesleyan’s endowment is strong or its financial condition ideal. It simply means that the numbers don’t support Roth’s suggestion “that an ever growing financial aid burden has led to a deterioration of Wesleyan’s financial condition.”

Alvarez concludes that eliminating need-blind is a matter of choice, not necessity—and that the Wesleyan community is entitled to more evidence of crisis before being asked to accept such a “tremendous compromise.” At the very least, the case against need-blind warrants additional information, including future projections:

I would say that altering our need blind practices today seems to be more a matter of choice than necessity. I think a sound, principled case can (and should) be made for continuing our current need blind policy at this time. [ . . . ] The community is being asked to accept a tremendous compromise to what many of us consider the essential character of Wesleyan; as such, I think it is only fair that we get to look in detail at how much exactly we would be saving as a result. If the case for making these changes is as strong as I assume the administration in good faith believes it to be, there is no reason such projections shouldn’t be subjected to public scrutiny.

You can read Alvarez’s full report, which I only hastily summarized, here.

Meanwhile, in the few weeks since President Roth first blogged about the changes, reader comments have blown up at the presidential blog. The post in question (which Syed blogged abut here) has become a forum for students, parents, and alumni, many disappointed by the announcement, a few offering defenses, and one even providing a poem. On the “outrage” side of the spectrum, there is the post by Estrella Lopez ’07, who comments on a lack of alumni involvement in the decision-making process:

It is extremely disappointing that I had to find out that this was happening from a third party. Other than a quick line in an email send 3/1/2012 about Wesleyan’s Reaccreditation Self-Study, there was no hint that this was happening until last month, at which point, presumably this was already a done deal. Where was the communication on this vitally important matter when there was still a chance to do something about it? Where were the calls to fundraise letting people know that if $X weren’t raised then need-blind admissions might have to be sacrificed? We are constantly hit with artificial cries for urgency that we have to give by end of this challenge or during GOLD giving month, but here, where there was real urgency, with real consequences if we didn’t act, we instead got silence.

For Lopez, the alumni solution is not to stop giving, but to attach a stipulation to hir donations:

I used to give my gifts unrestricted, “to Wesleyan’s greatest need” but now I will be specifically directing them to financial aid. Giving an unrestricted gift was a sign of my trust and faith in the institution, but by not including alums in this vitally important conversation, Wesleyan has betrayed my trust.

A fellow alumnus, Cristina Ruggiero ’94, who has apparent experience working in higher education, offers comment on how the shift may affect socioeconomic diversity at Wesleyan in the future:

By limiting need-blind admissions, you are saying to students that those who cannot afford it have will have an even harder time trying to get in, since they will be competing against each other, whereas students without need will have a better shot at getting in, since they won’t be subject to the 90% cutoff. This is the message you are sending to students with limited financial needs, essentially, ‘you can apply, but your chances of getting admitted will be less than students who can pay.’ How will the admissions office truly make those decisions and parse out who is worthy to receive aid (and admission) and who is not? Students will think, ‘Should I really apply, because they might not admit me because I can’t afford to pay? How will I know that I got in (or not) because of that?’ Those are the questions wealthy students will never have to consider. And those students, of which I was one, a little more than 20 years ago, will not consider Wesleyan. They will see themselves as ‘second class students,’ who are not really wanted or only wanted up to a ‘certain point.’

The most elaborate comment in favor of President Roth’s plan comes from one David Gerard ’72, P ’15, who points out that the move to need-aware may be temporary and that students who are admitted will still have their full needs met:

It’s easy to react emotionally to these moves, but as we used to say in my college days at Wes, “Are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” Roth is offering solutions to thorny problems, and I believe that colleges with similar-sized endowments to ours are going to imitate what Wesleyan has chosen to do. Our president has demonstrated leadership in taking these tough actions, and for the sake of the university’s future, we would all do well by supporting Wesleyan financially as much as we can as well as giving him some time to make these changes work for the benefit of the entire Wes community, whether in Middletown or around the world.

While Gerard suggests stepping back and “giving [President Roth] some time to make these changes work,” a fellow commenter, Jesse Ross-Silverman ’13, suggests the opposite: demanding more answers, more clarifications, and more scrutiny. As Ross-Silverman puts it, “the only major change that university is considering is deliberately making the student body less socioeconomically diverse,” thus “removing one of the core aspects of Wesleyan that made me want to attend ‘Diversity University’ in the first place.” His questions include the following:

  • What process did the university use to make this decision?
  • Will the university take any steps to preserve socioeconomic diversity in other ways?
  • How will the seats in the class be decided after the financial aid budget ‘runs out’?
  • By how much will the financial aid budget grow/be allowed to grow in subsequent years?
  • While you mentioned that tuition will be pegged to inflation and implied that this will impose a harder budget constraint, will the university make any effort to increase revenue or contain/reduce costs in other areas?
  • How much more revenue would need to be raised or costs reduced before Wesleyan could re-commit to ‘full’ need-blind status? Or alternatively, under what financial model would need-blind status be possible to maintain?

They’re smart, thought-provoking questions, and Roth’s follow-up post—“Financial Aid: Now More Than Ever”—could be interpreted as a start at responding to them. Here’s hoping a Student Budget Sustainability Task Force can work towards more answers—and solutions—in the fall.

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