Schools growing less blind to student financial need

Schools across nation debate ways to cut costs in tough economic times

February 6, 2013

At the recent forum on Knox’s troubled finances, President Teresa Amott took great pains to stress that most, if not all, liberal arts schools in the country are having similar discussions about their fiscal situations at the moment.

That is certainly the case.

Colleges nationwide are struggling to balance between three priorities: keeping their schools accessible to all deserving students regardless of their socioeconomic status, meeting the full financial aid requirements of the students that they do admit and ensuring that graduates do not graduate with crushing debt loads.

It has always been difficult to meet all three goals, and it has become virtually impossible for many liberal arts schools in the current financial environment.

“Many administrators are coming to realize that upholding some values might come at the cost of others,” Kevin Kiley wrote in a piece for Inside Higher Ed.

An increasingly popular trend is to turn against need-blind admissions policies. Only six private schools in the entire country are need-blind for all applicants. A few dozen, including Knox, factor in need for international applicants but not American students.

That list is increasingly shrinking. Macalester, for example, went need-aware in 2006. Tufts followed suit in 2009.

One of the most recent schools to make the switch was Wesleyan University. Last year, Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth officially announced a new policy where the school would remain committed to being need-blind “for as many students as possible.”

In Roth’s blog post announcing the decision, he estimated that meant around 90 percent of students would be admitted without aid considerations. For the last 10 percent though, ability to pay without drawing on college financial aid resources would privilege them in the admissions process.

There is also increased emphasis on three-year degree programs to get students out quicker, saving around 20 percent of the total cost of a Wesleyan education. This is an option that Amott has been strongly against for Knox, citing her own experience graduating early and being left unprepared for graduate school.

This decision came after Wesleyan cut $30 million from the annual budget and over $200 million in planned capital expenditures. Financial aid, meanwhile, had doubled in its share of the college’s total operating budget from where it was just 10 years ago, reflecting increased student need in tough economic times.

Student response to the decision has been unfavorable. A petition started opposing the change has garnered hundreds of signatures from a school with an enrollment of just over 3,000.

“Why would some meritorious lower-income students spend their limited resources applying to Wesleyan in the first place when they know the university could reject them simply because of their financial situation?” asks the petition.

Nearer to home, Grinnell, a member of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest like Knox, is having the  conversation too.

“It just became clear that if we continue to give more and more aid, the numbers don’t add up,” President Raynard Kington recently told NPR.

Grinnell, like most affected schools, has become a victim of long-term economic trends. The current 60 percent of tuition that is paid out in financial aid is likely to rise to over 70 percent within the decade, a level that would likely be too much for an endowment that is already being heavily drawn on.

Though Grinnell remains need-blind for now, some aid that was formerly given in grants is being changed to loans. Recruiting strategies have also shifted subtly to target groups of student less likely to need financial aid. Further actions may be taken in the coming months.

“We want to be an access institution,” Kington said in the New York Times. “But we can’t be only an access institution.”

Strategies aimed explicitly at wealthier students can run into trouble not only with the values of an institution, but possibility even legal trouble.

“One has to ask the question about exactly what non-profit colleges are getting their non-profit status for,” financial aid analyst Mark Kantrowitz said in the Inside Higher Ed article. “If it’s not part of their mission to enable low-income students to pursue a college degree then they’re just serving elite students.”

The trend is not universal. Vassar recently went the other way, switching back to a need-blind policy after 10 years of being need-aware. The numbers of first-generation students and students receiving Pell Grants shot up, although expenditures on financial aid nearly doubled.

Vassar President Catherine Hill criticized the evasive strategies some schools are taking to stay need-blind while reducing enrollment of low-income students.

“Look beyond a need-blind, need-aware, or need-sensitive label to get to the heart of the matter. Is the college committing resources to a socioeconomically diverse student body? Or just talking about it?” she asked recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Officially, moving to need-aware admissions is not being considered at Knox. Just because that is the case now, though, does not mean that it will remain so in the future.

At Wesleyan, Roth once also considered such a move unthinkable.

“I did not expect at Wesleyan to have to make this kind of decision but I don’t think in good conscience I can maintain a policy that, absent some miraculous change in the future, is just unsustainable,” he told NPR.

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