On Tuesday night, Jacques Steinberg spoke to a sweltering Memorial Chapel. He is the author of The Gatekeepers, a bestselling nonfiction account of the college admissions process that used Wesleyan as its backdrop, but the subject of the evening revolved around a more urgent issue in higher education than just the insane selectivity of the best schools — that of college affordability. Steinberg had recently left his post at The Choice, the New York Times education blog that he pioneered, to work at a New York-based nonprofit called Say Yes to Education that helps disadvantaged high school students get into college, pay for it, and graduate.
Many of the problems he described, he felt, were too urgent to simply stand by and observe as a journalist. With budget cuts, many college counselors’ caseloads in public schools have ballooned to over 500 students. The student loan/debt cycle is a familiar anxiety to many students here, as well as recent graduates, and he described how some graduates in debt don’t pay off their loans until their children are almost ready to go to college.
He reminded Wesleyan students of how fortunate they were, in spite of the controversy over need-aware admissions. Wesleyan remains one of the few institutions in the country that can meet students’ full demonstrated financial need. The question of the value of higher education, he said, is relatively new and wasn’t really circulating at the time that he wrote The Gatekeepers, but now it will likely become a key policy question in the next few years. He said it will probably become important to ask about vocational and differently-paced tiers of higher education without seeming racist or insulting.
Six months ago, I posted that a newly conceived Student Budget Sustainability Task Force, the brainchild of WSA President Zachary Malter ’13, would be forming in the fall of 2012 and eventually articulating formal recommendations to President Roth and the Board of Trustees. Malter pieced together the concept quickly in the wake of widespread opposition to a need-aware Wesleyan.
As promised, the student-run committee has “worked extensively to evaluate the suitability of the recent move to a capped financial aid budget and need-aware admissions policy,” and the members have formulated a memorandum to the committee explaining their process thus far and the specific proposals that are under consideration. These aren’t their formal recommendations. Rather, the task force writes, “it is meant to spark conversation and debate before our final report.”
On President Malter’s request, I’m reposting the memorandum in full. You can also find it in PDF form here.
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.”
Back in June, WSA President Zach Malter ’13 proposed the Student Budget Sustainability Task Force—his means of involving more student voices in the debate surrounding need blind admissions. Thanks to Malter’s efforts, the task force will be proceeding as planned, and it is now seeking highly motivated members:
As many of you know, President Roth has proposed to scale back need blind admissions. For more information, check out here, here, or here. In response, the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) has decided to form the Student Budget Sustainability Task Force, composed of WSA representatives and non-WSA representatives alike in the classes of 2013, 2014, and 2015, which will make recommendations to the administration and identify budget cuts, cost savings, or new revenues to offset the cost of need blind admission.
Wesleyan student and senior interviewer Zain Alam ’13 has been featured in Businessweek
for an op-ed regarding student loans as part of a feature piece on student loans, an issue which is becoming more and more prevalent as private universities continue to increase their costs. The increasing amount of time required to pay off loans is acknowledged in the story title: Student Loans: Debt for Life. The blurb for Alam’s photo illustrates a situation that has become commonplace at top schools, including Wes:
A senior at Wesleyan University, Alam works 10 to 25 hours a week to limit his loans, which he still expects could reach $23,000 by the time he graduates. “It becomes really apparent how absurd the price tag is when you go abroad and everyone’s jaw drops,” he says. “Of course, most of them say they’d do absolutely anything to get an education in America—but at what price?”
Alam Editor Peter Coy cites a New York Fed study that found people over 60 are responsible for over $60 billion in loan debt, and offers a handful of possible longterm solutions to the problem:
Just because it’s the summer doesn’t mean the activism has to stop. A new Tumblr is taking on the change in the need-blind policy one meme at a time.
The creator of the tumblr says ze created it to “point out all the terrible contradictions both he and the administration say/do at the expense of need-blind admissions.” Ze asserts:
“He has an at-first-glance convincing argument: basically, right now the amount of money we can give for financial aid would allow us to accept 90% of the incoming class need-blind. However, after the budget for financial aid runs out, admissions will need to look at applicants financial situation. Roth says that there is no reason to avoid repealing need-blind just because it is “morally pure” to keep it. Rather, the university’s first priority is “to provide the best chance of success to the students we graduate.” That makes sense; don’t sacrifice quality over… morality?”
Check out the rest of the memes at rothtastic.tumblr.com.
Also, if you haven’t already, check out the Need-Blind Admissions Policy Focus Group website. The site features historical and financial information in addition to linking to discussion on the policy change.
As you’re sobering up from R&C, the school year might already be a distant (read: hazy) memory, but President Roth reminds us that Wesleyan must go on. On the immediate level, the “school’s out for the summer” mentality is misleading—there is still plenty going on over on our handsomely manicured 316-acre campus, and administrators are still at work. On the long-term level, we kinda have to make sure the school doesn’t die of financial ruin…
President Roth has published a blog post titled “Sustainable Affordability,” found here, that finally explains
his the administration’s reasoning on the changes you may have heard murmurs about. There was strong student outcry about losing need-blind admissions, and Roth seems to respond indirectly to it. The explanations are now out there, though it is disappointing that these decisions are only coming to light in blog posts during the summer when students are less likely to see them. I summarize below, but I encourage everyone to fully read and comment on Roth’s original blog post.
Also: Roth discusses plan to link tuition increases with inflation, encourages three-year graduation.
Earlier this month, in the wake of the Affordability Forum with President Roth, I posted a brief history of need-blind activism at Wesleyan. In particular, I included an interview with Ben Foss ’95 about the 1992 occupation of North College following President Chace’s proposal to modify Wesleyan’s need-blind status. Wesleyan, I explained then, is today considering instituting a cap on financial aid, a policy under which the University would remain need-blind for 85%, maybe 90% of admitted students in the Class of 2017. Once that cap is reached, admissions would begin to take financial need into account in its acceptance decisions.
So Robert Alvarez ’96, a fellow activist and former member of Wesleyan Republicans, wrote in with additional reflections:
These were not exclusively “radical” undertakings by any means. Rather, they truly united the campus. [ . . . ] In fact, the Wesleyan Republicans that year wound up spending most of our budget faxing out press releases the day of the North College takeover (yes, go ahead and snicker, but you didn’t email stuff like that back then and faxing was actually pretty expensive). That type of broad-based organizing is tons of hard work, but it is also powerfully effective when you pull it off. I truly hope that a similarly broad-based coalition can come together and protect Wesleyan’s proud financial aid tradition once again.
Turns out Judgment Day is sooner than I realized. Today, at 9:30 a.m. in the Daniel Family Commons, Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees will meet to discuss Roth’s budget proposals for the coming academic year. When the proposed budget passes, it will spell a short-term end to longstanding need-blind admissions practices at Wesleyan. It will also mean linking tuition increases with inflation and encouraging a three-year graduation route. The Affordability Forum hinted at a willingness to include Wes students in the ongoing discussion. So where is all the fanfare, the chanting, the debating?