‘Our moral responsibility’: Martin on need-blind admissions
This story is the second of a two-part series examining Chancellor-elect Andrew Martin’s plans to pursue diversity initiatives at the University. In part one of the series, we focused on Martin’s views of free speech and political dialogue. Today, we’ll examine his outlook on need-blind admissions and socioeconomic diversity at Washington University.
A brief history of socioeconomic diversity at WU
Over the last six years, Washington University has come under scrutiny for the lack of socioeconomic diversity within its student body. Numerous reports from the New York Times have documented the outsized representation of students from the top one percent at Washington University. Namely, a 2015 NYT article labeled Washington University “the least economically diverse top college,” and revealed that only six percent of students on campus at the time were eligible for federal Pell Grants.
In addition to the pre-existing TRiO and College Prep Programs, administrators announced a plan to increase the number of Pell-eligible students on campus to 13 percent by 2020. In 2016, the University established the Deneb STARS program to provide support and mentorship to Pell Grant-eligible students at the University. The University has made steady progress toward this goal, with 15 percent of the Class of 2022 eligible for Pell Grants.
The University’s most recent capital campaign, Leading Together, raised a total of $591 million for scholarships. In a 2018 interview with Student Life, Chancellor Mark Wrighton cited need-blind admissions as “an ideal we can work towards.”
Barriers to becoming need-blind
Previously, Martin was the dean of the College of Literature, Sciences, and Arts at the University of Michigan, a need-blind institution. In line with his experiences at Michigan, Martin said he wants to make need-blind admissions a top priority at Washington University.
“I think it’s our moral responsibility to become a need-blind institution as quickly as possible,” he said.
However, Martin acknowledged the financial barriers preventing the University from assuming need-blind status. According to Wrighton, an additional $1 billion needs to be endowed for financial aid if the University implements a need-blind admissions practice. The vast majority of the proposed $1 billion would be invested to later benefit the University’s financial aid funding. The remaining 4.5 percent, or approximately $45 million, would go directly toward financial aid, according to Provost Holden Thorp.
According to Martin, transitioning too soon would create additional financial barriers for students.
“I think for us to go need-blind right now, [that] would put us in a situation that we would have to offer some students financial aid packages which I don’t think are acceptable,” Martin said. “Those that would incur very significant loans and family burdens, which couldn’t be met and those students ultimately wouldn’t matriculate.”
Increasing socioeconomic diversity as a need-aware institution
Though the University is a need-aware institution, Martin is making strides to ensure all students on campus have the same experience, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
In January 2018, the University announced its partnership with QuestBridge, a national organization that matches talented low-income students with elite schools. The University’s first class of at least 30 QuestBridge scholars will matriculate this fall.
This February, Martin announced two start-up grants that will go into effect this fall to ease the burden of low-income freshmen students as they come to campus; there is a tech grant that provides $500 to help cover the cost of a laptop, and a general grant of $1,500 that aids students in paying for the transitional costs of coming to college, including flights to and from campus and textbooks.
Martin acknowledged that the establishment of these grants is a sign of progress on the University’s part, but also understands that disparities remain between low-income and more affluent students, like access to unpaid internships and access to funding for summer study abroad programs.
“We really need to rely on our students, because our students need to point out to us where these disparities exist. I mean, aspirationally, we’d like to be at a point where every undergraduate student who comes here can have the same experiences as the most privileged undergraduate student,” Martin said.
Student Union has also taken steps to alleviate the financial burdens that impact low-income students at the University. In 2018, SU partnered with the Office for Student Success to start the SU Mental Health Fund, which funds mental health services for students who otherwise may not be able to afford them. On Feb. 15, SU officially endowed the Opportunity Fund with $300,000, which provides stipends to low-income students to increase the accessibility of extracurriculars on campus.
WU as a national model for excellence
Student Life asked Martin what his vision is for the University 20 years from now, when he would be further along in his tenure and have had more experience navigating the technicalities of becoming need-blind.
“By this point, we should be completely need-blind and this should be the most welcoming, inclusive university in the country with the goal of finding the very best talent, and providing them the opportunity to live up to their full potential regardless of previous opportunity,” Martin said.
Martin said he envisions Washington University continuing to improve its research and educational programs, as well as its engagement with the broader St. Louis community.
“For us to achieve greater levels of excellence and for people to say, ‘Yes, Washington University is a model for how a private university can contribute to the…greater public,” Martin said. “I think that would be a really great thing.”
Additional reporting by Chalaun Lomax