The Counterargument: Is Need-Blind What We Really Need?

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.

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  • sadandsorrowful

    I’m just saying,
    I’m happy I’m an outgoing senior and not an incoming freshman.

    This is not to say that I have no interest in these topics, the removal of need-blind admissions is a move in a direction that I am sorry to see Wesleyan take. The whole faculty benefits fiasco of last year was saddening enough, and while I have tried to be outspoken and supportive of the student movements against this, at this point, I feel quite powerless.

    Roth is not running a university that listens or caters to students’ needs. And that is a pity. I just hope he leaves soon (I don’t know the particulars of his contract) and he is replaced by a sympathetic, intelligent president who can understand the ramifications of hir actions.

    As a transfer, I applied to Wesleyan under need-aware conditions, so I guess I can’t say that I wouldn’t apply to Wesleyan if it wasn’t need-blind. However, if Wesleyan wants to remain competitive, need-blind is essential. Is the extra money worth the potential dip in rankings, prestige and value of degree?

  • Batte_A

    This was brought up in the last thread too, but it’s worth noting that as far as the university’s financial picture goes, a few facts contradict the narrative of necessity:

    1) Financial aid spending has been steady, *not* growing, over the last decade, as a percentage of tuition+room and board.
    2) The school’s revenue has *exceeded* its expenses every year, for at least a decade.

    These are from a financial overview/analysis done by a ’96 alum. Look at them yourself:
    http://needblindfocus.group.wesleyan.edu/financial-information/

    • johnwesley

      As to point 1) True, except for the fact that all three (financial aid, tuition, + room and board) have been going up in tandem all these years and that accounts for for why the percent has been “constant” overall. Do you really want to test how high tuition can go before it no longer is able to match the rate of increase in financial aid? Some would say the saturation point has already arrived.
      As to point 2) Both True and Untrue. The Board of Trustees ultimately decides what constitutes a “surplus” by basically defining how much of the “total return” on the endowment it is prudent to draw down in order to to meet expenses. Since every one of those years also included a hefty contribution from the endowment; the whole idea of what is or is not a surplus (or, a deficit) basically boils down to whether a 6% or 7% yearly draw from the endowment is an acceptable rate of contribution. Most experts will tell you that it isn’t.

  • Matt

    This university should certainly strive to maintain need-blind admissions in the long run; however, it is impractical and unrealistic to expect the school to maintain this policy currently while it is struggling financially. Certainly, the larger problem is a seriously needed audit of the way universities are run, and Wesleyan is a prime example of the waste of tuition that occurs in day to day operations. The university must address this issue to restore its financial health. Then, the school will be able to make itself more affordable to everyone by lowering standard tuition for those who can pay and not disadvantaging those who cannot. While it is not ideal to curb the need-blind policy in the near future, it is senseless for the school to take on more financial stress by allowing students to attend for free when there are more than enough qualified applicants who can pay. It is the easiest short term fix to ease the school’s financial burdens and improve the quality of life for students who currently go here until larger problems can be solved.

  • Finally some sense is being knocked into you people! All last Spring during the controversy, I made all of these need-aware arguments. To everyone wearing the “stop selling seats” buttons, who oppose need-aware on some supposed moral high ground: you are just as bad as the obstructionist Republican members of Congress. Not only because of all the egregious misconceptions you spout but because you refuse to recognize that balancing and maintaining a budget requires spending cuts AND additional revenue or at least stop-gap measures to prevent a decrease in revenue. You cannot maintain a competitive faculty and staff without adequate compensation including raises that are in line with inflation. You cannot maintain a competitive and diverse student body without controlling the rise of tuition. You cannot matriculate successful graduates when you saddle them with crippling debt. WAKE UP and realize this is a temporary measure until the endowment is large enough to accommodate a need-blind budget. One commentator is ridiculous enough to suggest that eliminating retreats and the theft of office supplies will add up to the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars saved in one fiscal year by becoming need-aware. I am sure we can maintain a diverse student body throughout the need-aware time period even if some snooty applicants decide to turn their noses. Wesleyan is a school that is simply trying to live within its means and not diminish the experience for its students or put them into bankruptcy at the age of 22. We aren’t Williams with an endowment of $1B+ or Harvard with an endowment of $32B+. WAKE UP!

    By the way, if you are serious about spending cuts, why not put some actual ideas on the table like eliminating Spring Fling, the Orientation program, tenure, or contracting with companies that have labor unions? Heck, why not eliminate the student activities fee altogether and instead put those funds towards financial aid? Oh right, because going at the budget with a machete seriously diminishes the quality of academics, extracurriculars, and social life for Wesleyan students.

    • And you are just as bad as that guy who bursts in on a thoughtful online discussion yelling in all caps and comparing people who disagree with you to “the obstructionist Republican members of Congress.”

      • You’re right, my penchant for caps yelling and soaring rhetoric is uncalled for. I’ve taken the comment down. It was not my intention to ruin the civility of the discussion but clearly I did just that. Sorry to anyone I offended.

  • alum

    http://www.thesustainableuniversity.com

    Wesleyan is spending unsustainably. Along with quite a few other LACs.

  • Keep Admissions Need-Blind’15

    I disagree with this piece. As a student who comes from a low income family, I sometimes feel diminished or belittled by the wealth that surrounds me. I’m around a number of people who come from high income backgrounds, and sometimes it’s absolutely embarrassing to be caught in a situation where I can’t afford something or to hear other people talk about all the cool volunteer things they did in third world countries because they could afford their plane tickets. (Yes, this happens even at Wesleyan.) I feel that the current socioeconomic diversity is already not diverse enough, and changing the need-blind admissions policy is only going to make it worse.

    Also, I have a bit of a problem with this statement:

    “Furthermore, the financial aid students who apply to Wesleyan are
    obviously qualified to apply to and get into other great schools.”

    Yes, we are qualified to get into other great schools, but that doesn’t mean we do. I myself applied to many other schools similar to Wesleyan, but I either didn’t get admitted or was put on waiting lists. When it came time to matriculate, it was either go to Wesleyan, go to community college, or hope that I got a good spot on those waiting lists. Although this wasn’t the only factor in my decision to come to Wes, I think the choice I made was clearly the only one worth making.

  • alum

    the whole point of moving to need-aware is to grow the endowment so that going forward, Wes can go back to being need-blind. the number of students “hurt” by being need-aware for a few years <<<< number of students helped by a larger endowment in the future

    Wes needs $100 million more in endowment money to get back to full need-blind. it'll happen.

    kierkegaard: "if the university gains money from this policy shift, it's not going anywhere else but the endowment, and anyone who has been paying attention to university fiscal policy since the start Roth regime knows it."

    Do you not know the function of an endowment? The WHOLE POINT is to increase the endowment so that the financial aid budget can be INCREASED in the future, thereby supporting need-blind. Over-spending is what got us into this situation in the first place. If you think the budget can be cut anymore, I urge you to check Wesleyan 2020 – not pretty.

  • why here?

    Since when is Wesleying the place for opinion pieces? This is a thoughtful piece that belongs in the Wespeak section of the Argus…wesleying doesn’t seem like the right place for a few people to be writing long essays/arguments about their own feelings on an issue…

  • kierkegaard

    Roth was chosen for his spot because he was in the best position to encourage donations to the school, and he still has a job because he’s willing to do *anything* to net the endowment a couple more bucks. Even if the endowment was doubling in size year over year, it wouldn’t be enough, and we’d still be talking about cuts.

    If Wesleyan wasn’t need-blind, I wouldn’t have applied. I know lots of other students who feel the same way.

    Regarding the article itself: really? You’re going to defend the administration on the basis that Roth cross-his-heart-and-hope-to-die-really-pinky-swears that he’s going to run admissions like they’re need-blind? If this was sincere, there would be absolutely no argument for getting rid of need-blind admissions in the first place.

    Next, it seems like you want us to feel sorry for the administration, or something. “I doubt the administration is happy about it”… Call me a cynic, but I think the administration is far too far removed from this issue to feel the way about this that actual *students* do.

    I also don’t think you understand how “need-blind” admissions and financial aid work/have worked in the past. Wesleyan meets 100% of demonstrated financial need for all students admitted — it’s not like Wesleyan decided in the past that a certain number of students that have demonstrated need from each class are just going to have to suck it up, because there’s some lack of funds. What I’m trying to say is that this is not a trade-off between giving the people here aid and giving everyone applying a fair shot regardless of financial circumstances — at least not the way you’re putting it. Besides, if the university gains money from this policy shift, it’s not going anywhere else but the endowment, and anyone who has been paying attention to university fiscal policy since the start Roth regime knows it.

  • Mammoth

    I think that the concerns which
    Goodz raises are extremely important ones that any Wesleyan community member,
    whether in support of the changes to the need-blind policy or not, should take
    into consideration. Our institution has been financially unsustainable for
    decades now, and action should be taken to change that. Michael Roth, far from
    being an evil administrator who solely wants to homogenize the student
    population, has taken excellent steps to cutting unnecessary costs for the
    university. From simple things such as not having a garbage can in every
    classroom, to cutting unnecessary administrative employees, he has reduced
    costs significantly.

    However, my biggest problem with
    Goodz’s argument is that ze does not suggest any viable alternatives other than
    cutting need-blind to solve the issue of financial sustainability. Cutting
    limitations to the main source of revenue Wesleyan has (tuition) insinuates
    that the fundamental costs behind the present institution are justified. As a
    student who worked within the administration all summer, I can say from
    first-hand experience that there is an absurd amount of waste that is
    constantly present (including easily remedied employee inefficiency, high-cost
    “team-building” trips, and even small things like stealing of office supplies).
    The WSA task force, which is being put together right now to look at those
    inefficiencies, is absolutely the direction I think we should be going in:
    looking how to make our current institution the best it can be, without
    limiting accessibility and homogenizing the future student body.

    There are so many other things we
    can do to make Wesleyan more accessible, but on basic philosophical grounds I
    believe that cutting need-blind should never be on the table. Yes, the policy
    can be “temporary” as Roth has stated, but establishing this sort of precedent
    is a slippery slope down. Additionally, the lack of transparency the
    administration has exhibited is egregious (to use the language of another
    commenter), and this needs to change immediately for students to be able to
    propose more viable alternatives to the ones which have already been put on the
    table at “Wes for Need-Blind” meetings. I would urge everyone who disagrees
    with keeping need-blind to attend such meetings, as all opinions are necessary to
    best resolve this issue. Feel free to contact me with any questions you may have about anything I stated. I am also planning on writing a full response in the next couple of days.

  • ’13

    The idea that need blind can only be maintained by cutting how much money financial aid students receive is simply untrue. That would be true if you wanted to admit students need blind, give them full need, AND avoid sufficiently increasing the financial aid budget.

    So the question is, should Wesleyan increase the financial aid budget enough to keep need blind and full need in place. Well, can revenue be increased? If there are cuts to be made, can they be made to parts of the budget other than financial aid?

    I believe the answer to both of these questions is “yes”. We’ll need access to the details of the budget to figure out exactly how to do it, but there are many things on campus that would SUCK to lose, but wouldn’t undermine the core values that make Wesleyan Wesleyan.

  • Student ’14

    Congrats my good sir/madam on writing exactly what I have been trying to express to many people. Wesleyan does not have enough money for everyone to meet full need. Fact. Some students decide not to attend because of expenses. This creates a bi-modal distribution of students: those who come from working class / poorer backgrounds and those who come from upper class / richer backgrounds with the middle class being generally poorly represented and not receiving sufficient aid. Socioeconomic diversity means representing everyone at all points along this spectrum, not just either end. I don’t know the solution to Wesleyan’s monetary problems, but our current need-blind policy is unsustainable.

  • 2014

    Serious question: On the operating costs chart, what do the categories, “Auxiliaries” and “Other” comprise? I’m inclined to assume “Auxiliaries” are extra, part-time workers, but does anyone know what the majority of those jobs are (e.g. event staff, construction, etc)?

    • johnwesley

      Auxiliaries usually refer to enterprises run by the university that would not ordinarily be considered part of the core academic program, such as the dining hall, weshop, the bookstore, real estate management (usually faculty housing.) Technically, they’re supposed to be self-supporting, but are often subsidized, as I’m sure Bon Apetit is.

  • spinoza

    i utterly disagree with your argument. relying on the assurances of the administration to maintain diversity is extraordinarily naïve.

    i would also point out your egregious spelling errors. it’s “Wikipedia,” not “Wikepedia.” also, i don’t think the administration wishes “they had unlimited coiffeurs” (although for all we know, they might). rather, they wish they had unlimited *coffers*.

    • 2015

      I don’t know where the norm that the “administration” is to be distrusted at every turn came from. The group of people that govern the school are complex and often have their own internal arguments. They have a responsibility to ensure that Wesleyan remains beyond our (relatively short) four years here. Spelling errors aside, the University is doing it’s best to provide as many students as possible with an education within their means. As an aside, Wesleyan’s budget information is readily available. I urge my fellow students to look at what President Roth has written about the subject in good faith before labeling him or his intentions.

      Class of 2015

      • spinoza

        i think we’ve earned the right to be suspicious of the administration. from half-baked policies (the beta hullabaloo) to unfair procedures (the sjb standard of proof) to plain old incompetence (http://wesleyanargus.com/2012/09/03/mass-email-creates-controversy/), the administration has shown itself to be ripe for reproach.

    • Class of 2013

      Two minor spelling mistakes is far from egregious. You only weaken your counterargument (if that two sentence finger-wag even qualifies as one) by focusing on such trivial issues. Spend more time thinking about what you read before attacking.

      • spinoza

        my comment was by no means meant as a comprehensive counterargument. there are many more eloquent students out there who have thoughtfully expressed my opinions on the matter (http://wesleyanargus.com/2012/09/03/putting-a-price-tag-on-morality/).

        really, my main point had to do with spelling. the idea of the administration longing for “unlimited coiffeurs” was simply too amusing not to point out.

  • 2015

    This was really well written and made a lot of great points. I sincerely applaud the author on trying to make sense of a situation that nobody is happy about.

    Class of 2015