Grinnell Considers Cutting Need-Blind: A Comparison

Grinnell, like Wesleyan, is considering some fierce changes to its financial aid policies. As Kevin Kiley of Inside Higher Ed, the same writer who reported on Wesleyan’s policy change this summer, writes:

Grinnell College, which this year reported the fifth-largest endowment of any liberal arts college, announced Thursday that it would spend the next few months engaged in a conversation with campus stakeholders about changing its financial aid policies—including potentially, but probably not, going as far as making changes to need-blind admission.

Grinnell has about 1700 students and an endowment of roughly $1.5 billion. This puts their endowment per capita in the range of $800,000, or roughly four times that of Wesleyan. However, “the amount [Grinnell] spends on financial aid as a portion of its gross tuition revenue” is currently above 60%, while Wesleyan’s is only projected to be to be 37% in 2012.

As Kiley notes, Grinnell’s finances are in wonderful shape as compared with other top liberal arts colleges (including Wesleyan), and its announcement “could be a bellwether that the sector as a whole is reconsidering the model.”

While I am personally opposed to Wesleyan’s decision to transition from “need-blind” to “need-aware,” I must admit that Grinnell’s announcement has challenged me to reconsider my own opinions, especially in regards to what I might consider “financially sustainable.” If the price of maintaining need-blind admissions is too high for even the wealthiest institutions, I think the time has come to consider more comprehensive solutions to bring down the price of higher education generally. I need more time to consider if and how Grinnell’s announcement affects my own opinions.

For me, the most important aspect of Grinnell’s announcement is that the school’s administration has explicitly solicited discussion prior to any vote by their Board of Trustees.

Grinnell’s timeline consists of the following:

  1. Two town hall meetings for students with President Raynard Kington, their CFO, and their VP for Enrollment.
  2. A separate town hall for the college’s Alumni Council.
  3. A discussion between Kington and Grinnell’s Board of Trustees in which he will raise concerns voiced by students and alumni.
  4. A period for faculty recommendations about financial aid policies.
  5. Official recommendations from Kington to the Board of Trustees.
  6. A vote by Board of Trustees.

Grinnell is “even developing a computer station where users can play with the university’s budget models and projections.”

In the words of Kiley, Kington and the rest of the Grinnell administrators “are taking an unusually public approach to a discussion that arouses strong emotions, trying to educate all campus constituents on why they think the change might be necessary and hoping that, in doing so, they can mollify potential critics.”

Though it’s true that President Roth held a forum this past spring regarding “affordability” at Wesleyan, he never directly engaged the student body on the question of need-blind admissions prior to the final vote in May by Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees. This discussion should have occurred prior to the final decision, not after. It should have also been organized by the administration itself, whereas the forums at Wesleyan have only been held due to student initiative (the WSA last spring, Wesleying this fall).

Consider this food for thought, just one small part of a much larger conversation we need to be having. As President Kington said in a recent interview, “I think this is a conversation we can have in a reasonable manner.”

I encourage everyone to read Kiley’s article in full. It can be found here.

[Inside Higher Ed]

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  • johnwesley

    People who follow College Confidential know i don’t hand out bouquets easily, especially to other liberal arts colleges, but in this instance, Grinnell has put Wesleyan to shame. The biggest news to emerge from President Roth’s talk last week was the revelation that Wesleyan could have had a conversation like Grinnell’s four years ago, but did not because he did not want to “be the Wesleyan president that ended need-blind.” While I applaud President Roth for trying every means possible to avoid making that decision and for the subsequent round of budget cuts that staved it off for a few years, the process should have been more open. Where were the longitudinal forecasts? The computer modeling? Wesleyan once pioneered in those things. It’s very possible – in fact, highly likely – we would have come to the same conclusion, to forge ahead, make cuts to other parts of the budget and start applying more gifts and contributions to the endowment. But, I can’t help but think we would have all had a better idea of what to expect if things did not work out or if the computer forecasts turned out to be wrong. I applaud Grinnell for reminding us how it’s done.