Note: This post is the first in a series of posts exploring the argument in favor of scaling back need-blind. Agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments, and keep it civil.
If you go to Google and type in “need blind,” what shows up (in order) is a Wikipedia entry, a fact or fiction essay from College Insider, and an article about Wesleyan. You would have to be living under a rock not to know about the fiery controversy that started during the end of the spring semester last year. Whether it be banners hung at graduation or chalk marks lining the sidewalks, students are speaking up, and for the most part, they are not happy.
It seems, at first glance, that removing the need-blind blanket on Wesleyan admissions is an elitist leap made to help improve Wes endowment. Increasing endowment has been one of President Roth’s goals for a while, and it’s clear why. And what better way to increase endowment than admitting upper-class students whose parents can afford to make private donations? If Wesleyan can see exactly how much a student needs in aid when applying, you can imagine the ease with which they’d be able admit the rich and ignore the poor. When looking through this narrow lens, removing need-blind admissions is nothing short of an evil scheme to get us on track with the other “little Ivies.”
But the desire for huge stacks of money is not totally fiendish. After all, the cost of running a school is great when you take into account all the expenses that factor into it. If you look at this graph for Wesleyan’s operating expenses in 2012 (a not-insignificant total of $234 million), you’ll see that our three biggest expenses are paying staff, paying faculty, and giving financial aid (and all are pretty much equal). Wesleyan’s finances are a careful balance between having the most resources for students (faculty and subsequent classes, labs, workshops, programs, etc.), the cost of running a business (other staff), and allowing for an economically diverse student body (financial aid). If you had to choose which area to make cutbacks for the benefit of a different area, what would you pick? Would you take away classes to give more aid? Or you could try to circumvent the problem completely by increasing endowment.
So how does need-blind admissions fit into all of this? It fits because we don’t have any magical endowment faeries that will fly in and solve our university’s financial problems. Wesleyan can no longer afford to admit everybody need-blind and simultaneously cover everyone’s financial aid needs. The university is being honest about that, as they should. And, no, they are not trying to “sell seats”—they are trying to invent a system that will still admit a diverse group of students and support everyone financially. Ignoring the problem would simply lead to greater loans and life-long debt for a sizable percent of Wesleyan students.
An important aspect about the need-aware policy (ignored by most supporters of need-blind) is that Roth specifically addresses the “selling seats” worry by reassuring students about the intentions to maintain student diversity while tackling these financial woes:
Wesleyan will continue to seek a diverse student body, continue to meet full need, and continue to hold down student debt. We will continue actively to seek students who have great academic potential and very high need—families whose incomes make them eligible for our no-loan program, students who will receive full scholarships. And we will strive to find ways to make Wesleyan more affordable to middle class students.
Indeed, this need-aware policy is hardly as devastating a blow on our admissions process (and not nearly as extreme as the campus-wide uproar would have you believe). A large majority of students will still be admitted need-blind, and they will receive all of the scholarship they require. But once that scholarship runs out, the final selection of students must be made need-aware as to not cheat anyone out of getting what they deserve in aid. Parallel to that, the policy helps keep the already high Wes tuition from increasing further, something that many students express adamant approval of.
The most important task at hand is to meet the needs of the students that are already attending and enrolled in Wesleyan. If they can’t do that, then they have no business being need-blind. No student should enter this school being promised financial aid and then have that aid diminished halfway through their undergraduate career. That is not ethical. Furthermore, the financial aid students who apply to Wesleyan are obviously qualified to apply to and get into other great schools. Wesleyan owes those students the courtesy of not admitting them if they can’t meet their financial needs.
The university is as supportive of student body diversity as they have ever been. They just can’t go about promoting it the same way they have been doing since the 1960s. It’s a hard blow, but Wesleyan is not capable of conjuring up scholarships and grants needed to fairly compensate all financial need students. And so, Wes cannot admit all financial need students.
I doubt the administration is happy about it. I bet they wish they could admit everyone and give everyone the financial aid they needed, in a way so that they wouldn’t graduate four years later with $50,000 in debt. I bet they wish they had unlimited coffers. They don’t, but that doesn’t mean they’re a boiling, money-hungry beast that’s hell bent on chewing up Wes’s mission statement to bits. I encourage you to think of Wesleyan as what it is: a place of learning, doing its best to give its students the most out of their college experience. The most of everything, except for student loans.
For more ongoing coverage of this issue, see the ‘need-blind’ tag.