A week ago, Michael Bloomberg announced the largest gift in the history of American higher education: $1.8 billion to allow Johns Hopkins University be need-blind "forever." The university has been operating admissions need-blind -- admitting students without regard to financial need -- but had never committed to such a policy. Bloomberg's comments on the gift stressed his view that higher education needs to be open to all who can benefit, regardless of their financial means.
In the week since, there has been much debate over whether Bloomberg should have given the money to an institution that focuses on educating large numbers of low-income students, something many public and private institutions have stronger track records at than does Hopkins.
But relatively little attention has been paid to a pledge Hopkins made in its announcement of the gift. Hopkins said that it would aim to have 20 percent of its undergraduates by 2023 be eligible for Pell Grants. Many colleges that announce initiatives to reach more low-income students pledge to do more but don't necessarily give a specific target.
To many educators, 20 percent might not seem an ambitious goal. To take two other Baltimore institutions, more than half of the students at historically black Morgan State University are Pell-eligible. At the University of Maryland Baltimore County, known for its success in educating minority science students, the figure is 28 percent.
At Hopkins, the Education Department lists the current share at 12 percent, and many elite privates have similar shares. Hopkins officials say that the rate for most recent freshman class is higher than that. But clearly Hopkins needs to do more to meet its goal. What is the plan?
The university would discuss the issue on condition that the person interviewed be identified only as a Hopkins official. That official said that the most recent class hit 15 percent Pell-eligible, up from 10 to 11 percent a decade ago. "So we have been building our pool."
The official said that the Hopkins experience to date shows that increased recruiting (which he said would continue) is part of the equation. And being need-blind is important, too, he said.
But the funds from Bloomberg will also allow the university to do other things that he said would likely have an impact. For example, the university also is going to eliminate loans as part of any financial aid package. Currently, 44 percent of Hopkins students borrow.
While stressing that going loan-free was not "a silver bullet," the official said that low-income students who have been admitted but turned down Hopkins have in the past cited cost issues, especially concerns about borrowing, to explain their decision.
Other parts of the strategy Hopkins is developing include building relationships with community-based organizations and local schools that serve academically talented low-income students. This can't happen overnight, the official said, but has been key to the successes Hopkins has had to date.
The university believes that different approaches may work for different groups of students. "I wouldn't presume that what works in the city would work in rural areas," the official said. It is important for Hopkins "to figure out what we don't know" to expand its reach. He stressed that the strategy was still being developed. "We're excited to move forward," he said. And while Hopkins "doesn't want presume to be the answer for higher education," he said he hoped that some of the efforts could be used elsewhere.
Another elite private institution -- the University of Chicago -- in June announced a series of efforts to attract more low-income and minority students. One part of Chicago's strategy is to drop requirements that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores. (Chicago was already need-blind.)
Would Hopkins consider such a move? The official from the university said that there is no specific plan, but added, "Everything is on the table. What's of paramount importance is that we make a difference."