Staff Editorial: Need-blind admissions should be more than just a goal

Earlier this month, Arnold and Ellen Zetcher donated “at least $8 million in outright and estate gifts” as a university-wide scholarship for incoming students in need. On why they felt compelled to donate, Mr. Zetcher said, “When we heard about Chancellor Martin’s goal for need-blind admissions, we realized that our gift could help make that happen.”

Washington University has long been the subject of national conversation for its lack of socioeconomic diversity. In response to these criticisms, the administration renewed their commitment to work towards making the admissions process as equitable as possible with concrete goals for the University in 2015. This included a promise to double the percentage of students on campus who are eligible for a Pell Grant by 2020: a concrete vow with a deadline—one that was met. However, for all this concrete change, the topic of need-blindness as University policy has remained lofty and immaterial.

Wash. U. currently boasts being able to meet 100% of demonstrated financial need, which may be part of the reason why need-blind admissions haven’t been pursued as a goal in the past. While meeting demonstrated need is good—and many people come to Wash. U. because of the University’s good financial aid packages—a need-aware admissions system is inherently inequitable because it limits accessibility. Once Wash. U. has run out of scholarship resources, financial need can become a factor—said more frankly, a deterrent—in the process of deciding whether or not to admit a student.

Since the renewed commitment to economic diversity, need-blind admissions have seemed closer in sight, with former Chancellor Wrighton referring to it as “an ideal that we can work towards” in 2018 and Chancellor Martin claiming that he was “committed to securing the resources necessary to be able to practice need-blind admissions in due course,” in his 2019 inaugural address.

Lovely as these stated commitments sound, actual deliverance on them has been slim. In January of 2020, in response to the question of whether or not the University had developed a plan to become need-blind, former Vice Chancellor Lori White admitted that she could not offer a date or timeline, but could reassure them that becoming a need-blind institution was “one of [Chancellor Martin’s] highest priorities.” In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Martin elaborated on his inaugural promise. “Our students appropriately want me to define what ‘in due course’ means,” he said, “And of course I haven’t been able to.”

What’s stopping Wash. U. from becoming need-blind? According to Wrighton, the endowment would need a significant boost: as much as $1 billion more invested in financial aid funding. In 2019, Martin explained that attempting to become need-blind prematurely could leave some students with lackluster aid plans or potentially inhibit Wash. U. from meeting 100% of demonstrated need.

Obstacles to becoming need-blind, however, do not explain or justify the University’s inability to deliver a tangible plan for achieving it in the future. If it’s true that this initiative is a priority for the University, why do the administration’s conversations on the subject so often default into nonspecific, wishful lip service? A moral responsibility requires action. If the endowment isn’t large enough, what is the plan to fundraise the needed money? If there’s a risk of delivering sub-standard aid to students should we become need-blind, what procedures are in the works to mitigate that possibility?

Wash. U.’s renewed commitment to socioeconomic diversity falls flat without a commitment to becoming need-blind that is more than a declaration of aspiration. The Zetchers’ contribution is indeed a step toward pulling this goal out of the realm of possibility and into reality. It’s an act of generosity that the Editorial Board hopes will not only galvanize other donors to contribute toward the cause, but inspire the University to reinvigorate fundraising efforts toward the need-blind goal. Since construction on the East End is nearing completion, perhaps now is the perfect time. The vision that the Zetchers contributed toward is one we’d all like to see. It’s hardly an imposition for us to ask that the administration has a path to get us there—and that they let us in on it.

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