Re-prioritizing socioeconomic diversity
On July 30, the New York Times published an article about a lack of effort by elite colleges in recruiting poorer students. Washington University was specifically cited as having a low number of students receiving Pell Grants (need-based scholarships for undergraduate and post-baccalaureate students with a family income below a certain threshold) compared to peer institutions with similar resources and endowment sizes. According to the New York Times, in the 2010-2011 academic year, colleges like Emory University and Amherst and Vassar Colleges supported 22 percent of their student bodies with Pell Grants. At Wash. U., that figure was less than 10 percent.
Although Vice Chancellor for Admissions John Berg explained that disadvantaged students who are offered Pell Grants from Wash. U. as well as from other elite colleges with better name recognition tend to choose one of the latter, Wash. U.’s need-conscious admission policy—by which Wash. U. can theoretically reject applicants unable to pay the sticker price—inherently impedes the University’s path to achieving any meaningful level of socioeconomic diversity.
Based on Chancellor Mark Wrighton’s words at the most recent Tuition and Financial Aid Forum, the University has no plan to go need-blind anytime soon, with the University currently focusing its resources on “quality” and general “diversity.” However, among the top 20 colleges in the U.S. per US News & World Report, Wash. U. is the only one that does not follow a need-blind admissions model.
The New York Times article is not the only time Wash. U.’s disregard for socioeconomic diversity has been discussed in a national publication. As recently as August 20, The Washington Post’s Wonkblog posted an editorial claiming Washington University’s focus on merit aid over need-based aid is a calculated tool to build prestige and climb in rankings.
Of course, Wash. U. administrators don’t see things that way, at least not openly. In numerous interviews, Director of Admissions Julie Shimabukuro has said that need-conscious admission decisions do not come into play until Wash. U. is splitting hairs on who to admit to fill its last few beds. But if the Office of Undergraduate Admissions is not looking at financial information when determining the vast majority of its admission decisions, why not just take one small step further and officially become need-blind?
By utilizing need-conscious admissions, Wash. U. risks scaring off bright but disadvantaged students who worry that, even if they were admitted, they would not be able to afford a Wash. U. education. If fewer of these students apply, it is no wonder that few are admitted. It’s no secret that Wash. U. is not known by many outside of the “academic field” and that its name might be most popular among preparatory school college counselors. If Wash. U. had a more socioeconomically diverse student body, it could help make Wash. U. more accessible to communities that otherwise would not have heard of it.
The chancellor’s priority for diversity comes with the caveat that it must be affordable. Affordability is subjective. Almost every year, buildings are erected and torn down—from the recent expansions of the business school and the Brown School to renovations on the South 40 and the Athletic Complex. Wash. U. is fortunate to have a large enough endowment to make many large projects affordable.
Students may enjoy the recently renovated Bear’s Den with flat-screen TV menus, but investing more money in disadvantaged students can help others gain new perspectives on life and enhance each student’s college experience. Switching to a need-blind admissions policy would open the door for increased campus diversity. And although building a diverse student body is a slow process, someone has to knock over the first domino.