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Michael Bloomberg on Sunday announced a $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins University for the purpose of making the institution need-blind "forever."

The gift is the largest donation to an individual American college, by far.

Hopkins has in recent years been operating as if it is need-blind, meaning that applicants are considered for admission without regard to their financial need. But until now, Hopkins has not made need-blind admissions an official policy and commitment to applicants.

Only a minority of private institutions make such a commitment.

In an essay in The New York Times announcing his gift, Bloomberg said that there are major costs to society of colleges not considering all applicants without regard to their financial need.

"When colleges review applications, all but a few consider a student’s ability to pay. As a result, high-achieving applicants from low- and middle-income families are routinely denied seats that are saved for students whose families have deeper pockets. This hurts the son of a farmer in Nebraska as much as the daughter of a working mother in Detroit," wrote Bloomberg.

He added, "America is at its best when we reward people based on the quality of their work, not the size of their pocketbook. Denying students entry to a college based on their ability to pay undermines equal opportunity. It perpetuates intergenerational poverty. And it strikes at the heart of the American dream: the idea that every person, from every community, has the chance to rise based on merit."

Hopkins announced a series of policy changes it would make. In addition to being need-blind, as a result of the Bloomberg gift, the university will:

  • Eliminate loans in financial aid packages. Currently, 44 percent of Hopkins students borrow.
  • Reduce the expectation of what families will contribute to pay for college. The impact will be greatest, Hopkins said, for middle-class families.
  • Provide "comprehensive student support" for low-income students with research experiences, internships and study abroad.
  • Increase recruitment of students eligible for Pell Grants so that they make up at least 20 percent of the student body by 2023. They currently make up 12 percent of Hopkins students.

The Bloomberg gift is notable not just in terms of college admissions and aid policies, but for philanthropy. The size of the gift is much larger than other donations to individual colleges. According to Inside Higher Ed's fund-raising database, the previous largest gift was $650 million to the Broad Institute of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two institutions -- Columbia University and California Institute of Technology -- have received gifts of $600 million.

Prior to Sunday, Bloomberg was already a major donor to Hopkins, with gifts that total $1.5 billion.

Need-Blind Policies and Other Efforts

The Hopkins shift to need-blind comes at a time when many private institutions are pushing to do more to be affordable to low-income and middle-income families.

In June, the University of Chicago -- which was already need-blind -- announced a series of policies to make financial aid packages more generous for many students. Chicago announced at the same time that it was going test optional on admissions, and that shift received most of the attention, but the university also announced full tuition scholarships for students whose families earn less than $125,000, among other changes.

In September, Rice University announced a series of expansions of its financial aid for low- and middle-income families. Undergraduates from families earning less than $130,000 will no longer owe any tuition. Those from families with income under $65,000 will also receive room and board, and fees. Additional aid will also be offered to those from families who earn more than $130,000 but less than $200,000.

On Thursday, Colby College announced new efforts to make the institution affordable for middle-income families. The college will limit to $15,000 the family contributions expected of those from families earning up to $150,000. Colby is not need-blind but already does not expect family contributions from those from families with incomes of up to $60,000.

Most of the colleges that are need-blind are among the wealthiest and most prestigious colleges and have been that way for a long time.

But some colleges have moved in that direction. Vassar College adopted need-blind admissions in 2007 and stuck with the policy even when the economic collapse of 2008 led to significant declines in endowment values.

Other colleges -- such as Wesleyan University in 2012 and Haverford College in 2016 -- dropped need-blind admissions.

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