George Washington University has recently received a lot of flack regarding its misrepresentation of its financial aid policy as “need-blind” when in reality, the institution is need-aware. I want to take this opportunity to talk more about why some schools, like Wesleyan University, Colby College, Reed College, and Tufts University, are having to switch their financial aid policy from need-blind (not looking at an applicant’s financial need to determine that person’s fate) to need-aware (being able to look at this financial information).
First of all, private institutions such as these run on a high tuition, high aid model meaning that the institution can raise costs, but simultaneously keep the school affordable by allocating more money to financial aid for those students who cannot afford to attend. Of course, this leads to many problems including the fact that although tuition rates continue to increase, there is no guarantee that aid money will be increased at the same rate. Universities often have many outstanding priorities that require funding, and unfortunately this means that financial aid falls by the wayside. This means one thing: unless the university cuts its spending, the funds for financial aid will continue to dwindle. This is why some private institutions are switching from need-blind to need aware.
According to an article on Forbes.com, less than 12% of GWU’s budget is for financial aid. So, how do these schools deal with the fallout of not having enough money to uphold a need-blind admissions procedure? For one, they choose to admit more wealthy students, yet continue to release PR statements that they are actively trying to admit more low-income students but at the same time cannot sacrifice the quality of the education offered at that school.
Another option is for the school to admit students and give them financial aid packages that they know will not cover the demonstrated financial need of the student. There is some success in asking wealthy alums to donate tax-deductible scholarship money, but this method relies on the continuing existence of wealthy donors and isn’t a viable option for every school. Clearly, this contradicts the idea that higher education is one mode of equalizing the lower and upper classes because it is perpetuating the divide.
The fact is, for some schools, diversity is a second-level priority with the first priority being to sustain the quality of education that makes the school unique. Of course, extremely wealthy schools like Harvard, Amherst, Stanford, etc. with billion-dollar-plus endowments could afford to give each student free tuition, but this is simply far from the majority. This in turn puts even more pressure on low-income students to get into the very best colleges in order to even afford a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, there is just no way of guaranteeing admission to one of these schools, low-income or not.
To further complicate the situation, Grinnell College has reportedly tried to move to a need-aware policy despite its $1.38 billion dollar endowment; a decision that caused major protest from alums. Still, situations like these do not bode well for need-blind admissions policies.
However, before you freak out and decide to apply to schools that are only need-aware, remember that need-blind schools are not in fact all that need-blind. Admissions officers can deduce your financial situation from where you went to school, where you come from, and other factors like (for example, many admissions officers have contacts at high schools internationally, so they know the general socioeconomic makeup of the students who attend). All in all, finances in the world in higher education are just not fair; but is there any way to make the situation better?