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The shift away from need-blind: colleges have started their version of “wallet biopsies.” – higher education institutions admit students on economic status criteria

Imagine a student who has always had his heart et on attending a certain college. He has all the necessary credentials: a stellar resume, a terrific grade-point average, a strong application, and some very laudatory letters of recommendation.

He sends in the application and waits until the day when he will hear back from his chosen school. When the letter arrives, the news is bad. He has been turned down.

What went wrong? One word: money. Because the student did not have enough money to cover the costs — room, board, tuition, and books — of attending college, he was rejected.

A few years ago, this situation was rare. Colleges and universities prided themselves on having “need-blind” admissions policies, where the financial status of an applicant is not a factor in the student’s acceptance or denial.

But now faced with rising tuition and financial aid costs, some colleges and universities have had to abandon this dearly-held principle of college admissions. In its place, a new trend has emerged called “need-sensitive” — a policy that contradicts a longstanding ethos among colleges to admit and provide education for all qualified students regardless of their economic status.

There are those who say that colleges have been forced into need-sensitive policies because of decreased government aid and other factors. But some find the trend alarming because many parents are not aware that their college-aged children have limited access to a prestigious university — or even an average college.

“We’re not sure that a lot of parents — African-American parents, particularly — are in the loop,” said Joyce E, Smith, Associate Executive Director of the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC). “Parents come to me and say, `I know we’ll get a scholarship!’ That’s just not the case anymore.”

According to a 1994 study of admissions practices conducted by the organization, between 8 and 9 percent of the 584 colleges and universities responding said they have need-sensitive admissions policies. Of those with need-sensitive policies, 43 were private institutions and four were public, four-year institutions. Three need-sensitive respondents did not describe themselves.

Smith said that some higher education officials claimed that it was a “waste of an admit” to put a person through the application process knowing that the student couldn’t pay for the school.

The survey found that the higher the overall cost of attending a particular institution, the more likely need-sensitive policies played a role in the admissions process of that institution. But Smith predicts that more colleges and universities will be adopting similar need-sensitive policies in the future — which she believes will hurt many disadvantaged, minority or low-income students.

“We hope these things aren’t framed in terms of race and economics, but I’m afraid they will be,” Smith said.

Institutions give different reasons for adopting such policies, also known as “need-aware” and “need-conscious.” According to the survey, they cite: limiting tuition increases; decreasing the financial aid portion of the overall budget; or concern for student academic, social, and financial well-being.

Cost is what forced Carleton College in Northfield, MN to re-examine its policies three years ago when there was a single-year increase of 39 percent in the college’s grant-aid budget.

“We couldn’t sustain that. We needed to control our financial expenditures,” said Paul Thiboutot, Director of Admissions.

After deliberating for a year about whether they could meet the full needs of their students, Carleton officials decided to adopt a need-sensitive admissions policy for up to 15 percent of its students. In the short history of the policy, it has been applied to eight percent of the student body. “Our goal is to get it down to zero,” Thiboutot said.

But the implementation of the policy has not come without costs. While the racial make-up of the student body has not changed, college officials have found that fewer poor students and more rich students are attending the college now than before the policy was adopted.

Thiboutot said the college does not inform students that their rejection is based on financial need and does not want to anticipate whether need students may have a well-off uncle somewhere willing to foot the tuition bill if they could just get accepted. “We want to deal with people responsibly. The fact is, if they have those resources, they should let us know,” he said.

Lehigh University in Bethlehem PA uses the policy in considering five percent of its incoming class.

“When we look at student applications, the readers [of the applications] are not aware of [financial need],” said Lorna Hunter, Lehigh’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. “About 95 percent of those accepted get the aid they need.”

The need-aware policy kicks in at the end of the application review process. The unfortunate five percent are placed on a financial aid waiting list in the event that more money becomes available.

“You have to spread the costs out over a broad base, but some students are not going to get money,” Hunter admitted.

With an annual tuition of nearly $20,000, Lehigh adopted the need-aware policy four years ago. “It had gone with a total needs-blind system, but it was not good financially for the college,” Hunter explained.

But even with the new policy, there is pressure to raise tuition. “That’s something that will leave out some people,” Hunter said.

While many colleges and universities have not adopted outright need-sensitive admission policies, they have found other ways to limit access to their schools.

One tactic is to provide some — but not all — the financial aid a student needs. This practice is called “gapping.” Another strategy, known as “preferential/differential packaging,” provides different financial aid packages to different students — based on the desirability of the candidate to the institution.

The NACAC survey found that a majority of respondents have adopted such tactics.

The need-blind/need-sensitive debate nearly tore apart the association in 1994, when it began investigating how many colleges had adopted need-sensitive policies. A point of contention was whether the organization should penalize members for adopting need-sensitive policies. After a year of debate, the organization adopted a “Statement of Principles of Good Practice” which included a suggestion that colleges should [not will] admit candidates on the basis of academic and personal criteria rather than financial need.

Tom Mortenson, who publishes a newsletter called Post Secondary Education Opportunity that reviews financial aid issues across the country, says need-sensitive admission policies are an extension of a larger trend.

Beginning almost 20 years ago, federal and state governments began divesting in higher education. He observed that the federal government began putting less money into student grant programs and more into student loans — where ways are found to shift the cost of the loans to the borrower. At the same time, state governments have focused on building prisons and providing health care by cutting funding for higher education — which, in turn, allows state colleges to raise tuitions.

“Everyone has walked away from this issue that we thought 30 years ago was in the public interest — to make higher education accessible to all people,” Mortenson said.

Mortensen cites Wisconsin as an example, noting that the state has continually cut financial aid and other funding for higher education. “Wisconsin has so reduced its state support for higher education that if the trend continues into the future, Wisconsin will have appropriated its last dollar to education in the year 2023.”

He continues: “The net effect is the real cost of college for students of lower and middle income backgrounds. We have greater inequality for opportunity to higher education.”

And high school counselors who help guide college-bound students may not be much help. The NACAC survey found that just 10 percent of high school counselors were aware of all college policies, while another 80 percent were aware of some policies. Nearly a quarter of the counselors believed that colleges and universities showed inconsistency between the stated need-blind policies and actual practice.

But what is more alarming, says Smith, is the lack of awareness that students and their families have about need-sensitive admissions policies.

For instance, Smith said that some colleges and universities have focused on attracting students who have the ability to pay. Potential students in the inner cities may not even see a visiting representative from a prestigious university recruiting at their school.

Those students who are savvy enough to know about need-sensitive policies have been forced into gamesmanship with colleges, said Smith, noting that more and more students are asking for early admission decisions from their desired schools.

To make families more aware of need-sensitive admission policies, the NACAC has drafted set of 10 questions that it distributes to students and parents at college fairs. Some of the questions go to the heart of the need-sensitive policy, such as: “Will your institution meet my full financial need and will it meet my full financial need for all four years of my attendance?” and “Describe your financial aid program, including requirements for need-based aid, merit-based aid, and scholarships.”

The bottom line, Smith said, is that the family should have the final decision about whether a student can or cannot attend a college of that student’s choice.

“We should give them the chance to say who does and who doesn’t go,” Smith advised. “The main thing they have to do is to have colleges disclose [whether their admission policy is need-blind or need-sensitive].”

RELATED ARTICLE: Student Costs to Attend College in the Unites States

Average undergraduate tuition and fees, room and board rates paid by students in institutions of higher education in the United States, by type and institutional control (1994-95)

Total Tuition, Control of Room, and Board All Four-Year Institution All Institutions Institutions Public Institutions $5,962 $6,674 Private Institutions $16,222 $16,645 Control of All-Two-Year Institution Institutions Public Institutions $1,194(*) Private Institutions $11,059

(*) Figure reflects in-state tuition and fees only

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center of Education Statistic, 1995.

RELATED ARTICLE: Baby Boomer’s Babies Go to College

Total Fall Enrollment is Four-Year and Two-Year Institutions of Higher Education in the United States.

Figures reported in thousands

1990 All students 13,319 Full-time 7,821 Part-time 5,998 1993 All students 14,306 Full-time 8,128 Part-time 6,178 2000 (Projected) Total 15,522 Full-time 8,624 Part-time 6,898

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1995.

Anticipated Change in Need-Blind Policy


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