Administration stands by use of need-conscious admissions

Sonya Schoenberger
Photos courtesy of Washington University

Washington University has no plans to go need-blind in its admissions policy in the near future.

That was Chancellor Mark Wrighton’s carrying message at last Thursday’s annual Tuition Forum, an event marketed as a discussion about whether Washington University should continue to consider financial need as a factor in admissions decisions.

“It’s not our highest priority,” the chancellor said. “We’re committed to quality and diversity, but we also have to be able to afford [this diversity].”

Thursday’s forum, which featured Wrighton, Vice Chancellor for Finance Barbara Feiner and Student Financial Services Director Michael Runiewicz as panelists, provided a chance for students to ask questions about the ways in which the University manages and allocates its financial resources.

The chancellor made clear that, while the University would like to give more need-based aid, the administration has prioritized investments in faculty, facilities and programs over increasing socioeconomic diversity.

“We’ve moved from something more modest to something world class—and that’s cost a lot,” he said.

While the University’s endowment is among the highest in the nation, Wrighton maintained that the University lacks the financial flexibility of schools like Harvard, Stanford and Yale.

“We can do better, and we’ll be able to do better when we can afford more,” he said.

Given such limitations, the administration’s priority is to make sure that every admitted student has adequate financial resources to come to the University. Wrighton said that admissions decisions are made conscious of the fact that, pragmatically speaking, at least 50 percent of students need to pay full freight in order to support undergraduate opportunities and campus amenities.

Washington University is not alone in its struggle to find a balance between affordability and quality of education. A recent NPR article reported that Cornell University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while still need-blind, are turning some grant aid into loans, and Wesleyan University has dropped its need-blind designation.

Compared to a list of 26 similar research universities presented Feiner presented at the forum, the University ranked 12th in tuition and second in average room rates. Feiner noted that the difference between the most and least-affordable schools on the list was only about $9,000.

“When you think about it, a difference that’s less than $10,000 [per year] is not going to make a huge difference when students are deciding where to go to school,” Feiner said.

One student attending the forum, who will be graduating with $34,000 in loans, said her personal financial burden has affected the ways she views the University’s spending. She voiced disappointment that the University seems to value campus aesthetic over educational accessibility.

While loans are a significant burden for many students receiving financial aid, Runiewicz said that the University is committed to making sure all returning students have the resources they need to graduate.

“We want to hear when students are having challenges that might impair their ability to pay for school [or] graduate on time,” he said.

The forum, which has been taking place annually for over a decade, was an effort by Student Union to improve administrative transparency and to allow students to voice their concerns and opinions before top university administrators. But while all of the forum’s panelists expressed a desire to make the University as diverse and affordable as possible, some students walked away disappointed.

Sophomore Haley Hill said she appreciated that the administration was willing to listen to students but was skeptical that the panelists truly took into account the opinions voiced from the audience.

“I would have liked to see it more focused on what students can do rather than just administration telling the ways things are,” she said.

Student Union’s outgoing Academic Affairs Committee Chair sophomore Jeremy Sherman helped coordinate the event and said that while students’ ability to impact the school’s socioeconomic diversity is limited, recognition of the issue has been gaining ground recently.

“I think that most students would agree that we want the best quality students,” he said, “But we still do want the socioeconomic diversity, and that’s a challenge moving forwards for the administration. I’m not really sure what role students can play in that. I think that’s up for grabs—I think that’s for students to decide.”

  • Celina

    I’m glad that studlife published an article about the tuition forum. The student who “voiced disappointment that the University seems to value campus aesthetic over educational accessibility” was me. Good news is, there are people talking about this outside of the forum! More specifically, a group called Young Activists United St Louis, and it’s not just Wash U– we’ve got students and people from the community from all over the city talking about access to education and the student debt crisis. We have a fb page and a website (www.youngactivistsunited.org/) and monthly meetings. Email us if you want to get involved! [email protected].

  • Chuck

    How about we end affirmative action. I’m tire of sitting in class with unqualified students. I am not just referring to minority affirmative action but that includes athletes, legacies, and parents with tons of cash.

    End it now it is unjust.

  • tball

    “Investments in facilities”, it seems, means the gutting and refurbishing (if not complete destruction/construction) of buildings that were otherwise totally fine. A new absurdly luxurious BD, Cupples 2, Umrath, dorms on the loop, and now Elliott (Knight Hall) have marginal effects on my education (especially when I graduate before construction is complete). Additionally, this school blows massive wads of cash on wholesale new furniture every 2 years and completely inefficient energy mismanagement.

    I don’t even know what “faculty and programs” means exactly, but speaking personally, the diverse opinions and experiences that I have had to go out of my way to find on this campus have had WAY more of an effect on me and my development than any classes, professors, or pretentious facilities.