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The costs of ‘need-blind’ admissions policies

A New York Times story examining college admissions policies sparked some controversy in late July when Washington University was specifically highlighted as a top university that struggled in recruiting students from low-income households, partially because of a need-conscious policy. However, recent news throws into question whether universities’ “need-blind” policies are actually need-blind in practice.

On Oct. 21, The Hatchet, George Washington University’s independent student newspaper, broke the story that unlike its presidential namesake, GWU had told a lie and misrepresented its admission practices as need-blind for years. The only reason the change in “official policy” took place was because a new employee indicated in an interview on Friday, Oct. 18, that financial aid was taken into account for admissions decisions. George Washington changed its policy on its website from need-blind to need-aware the next evening, though admissions officials reportedly told prospective students earlier that day that the university was need-blind.

Wash. U. officials, to their credit, have been transparent with their procedure from the beginning. A prospective student’s ability to pay for Wash. U. is only taken into account when admissions officers are trying to reach the budget line for the incoming class. The University argues that it wants to ensure all students that are accepted are able to afford coming here, as opposed to dissuading applications from less-well-off individuals, although both potential methodologies result in fewer low-income students attending Wash. U.

Part of the problem is that the need-blind/need-aware distinction is a measure reported by a school itself, which causes temptation for inflating numbers. In fact, George Washington University was kicked out of the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings last year for misreporting admissions figures. While it seems convenient to argue that GWU’s admissions department is the exception to the rule, rather than part of an endemic problem, evidence points toward the latter.

A 2011 U.S. News column defined need-blind in the context of college admissions as the concept that “students be considered without regard for a family’s financial circumstances.” The column later goes on to suggest that while this is theoretically a great standard, actually doing so is extremely difficult. The school would need one of three things: 1) a small pool of applicants such that it would not consider need in the first place; 2) a large sum of outside funding; or 3) an endowment large enough that losing lump sums from tuition revenue would have no effect. The column’s author, Peter Van Buskirk, wrote that few schools in the United States have the capability to be truly need-blind in the long run.

Wash. U. administrators have indicated in the past that the financial burden of being fully need-blind is simply too great. Chancellor Mark Wrighton said at last December’s tuition forum that while the University would like to admit students regardless of financial need, Wash. U. does not currently have the financial flexibility to do so.

Stories like the one broken by The Hatchet show that other universities are struggling to support a need-blind policy financially. In 2012, Wesleyan University shifted to a need-conscious policy, and top schools like Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have also reported financial burdens from need-blind admissions policies.

While becoming a need-blind institution and thus more socioeconomically diverse is the ultimate goal, Washington University at least deserves some credit for prioritizing integrity above all else. However, outside of admissions, Wash. U. could still be doing far more to help foster inclusion and diversity on campus. The Mosaic Project is an excellent first step in doing so, but there is still no bias reporting system available to students who feel they have been subject to hate or bias. There is more to creating an inclusive campus than a need-blind admissions policy, and Wash. U. should be more aggressive in ensuring that all of its students feel safe and welcomed on campus.

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