Ten years ago, Vassar College began factoring financial need into some admissions decisions, a move necessitated by ballooning aid costs that similarly affected the policies at other institutions. Last week, reflecting a growing concern over the accessibility of higher education as well as more favorable economic conditions, Vassar announced that it would buck the trend and return to completely need-blind admissions for first-year freshmen.
Even before the change, college officials said that prospective students' financial situations only became a factor at the margins, affecting about 2-3 percent of the applicant pool (out of roughly 6,400 applications a year). During the 10 years in which Vassar considered need in admissions, it would only have become a factor after the initial round of selection decisions, said David Borus, the college's dean of admission and financial aid. A typical situation in which need might have counted for applicants was if they were on the waiting list.
One policy that won't change is Vassar's financial aid structure, which does not include merit aid and continues to cover all demonstrated need. As a result, about half the student population gets some form of financial aid.
"We were really seeing it -- along with other schools -- as a way of getting the message out that these kinds of schools are affordable for families given our financial aid policies, and your financial need won’t hurt you in the admissions process, and that’s the message we wanted to get out," said Catharine B. Hill, who became the president a year ago after serving as the provost of Williams College, one of the relatively few liberal arts colleges -- now including Vassar -- that have both need-blind admissions and pledges to meet full need.
That intended message will likely be heard loud and clear in higher-ed circles for another reason: Hill is an economist of higher education who has focused on the socioeconomic diversity of selective private institutions.
"This year the time seemed right in terms of the college’s direction, the arrival of the new president … where we are as an institution now, in terms of our strengths and depth of our applicant pool, which is considerably larger than it was back then, and the financial health of the institution," Borus said.
By opening the door to admitting more students with demonstrable financial need, Vassar will have to dedicate more of its budget to financial aid -- a move Hill said the college was already projecting before the policy change. She predicted that going need-blind would add about half a million dollars per class per year to the financial aid budget, which would come out of interest on the endowment.
So, despite rising financial aid costs -- the yearly budget was over $26 million this past school year, up from $9 million in 1990-91 -- the college had committed to dedicating an increasing portion of its yearly budget to fulfill students' needs. And while 2-3 percent of applicants was not insignificant, Hill's arrival signaled an opportunity to move from almost to completely need-blind admissions.
In the 1996-97 school year, the college could not keep up with the exploding cost of financial aid and abandoned its original need-blind admissions policy. Since then, the endowment, through fund raising efforts, has grown enough to make the policy feasible again: it expanded from a market value of $328.6 million in 1993 to about $741.7 million last year.
"The reason at the time was that the aid budgets at Vassar and similar schools were really sharply climbing, and there was a concern that not paying any attention to financial need at all in the admission process was perhaps leading to not having any sense of control of the budget, and thereby having a negative impact on the overall financial health of the institution," Borus said. "It is more feasible than it was 10 years ago, and we’ve learned in the interim that the college budgeting process is such that we know enough about our budgets and so forth to be able to predict our budgets for financial aid with some degree of accuracy."
Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and an expert on financial aid issues, taught Hill when he was an economics professor at Williams and she was an undergraduate. He said that the trend for most colleges has been in the opposite direction -- away from need-blind admissions -- similar to Vassar's move 10 years ago. The exception is among top-tier institutions, which have been taking various measures to make themselves more accessible to students from lower-income backgrounds.
"I would not expect this to be a dramatic change in who gets admitted," McPherson said. "If you’re close, it’s really nice to be able to make a simple statement, so you don’t have to send an ambiguous message.... If you're near to being able to do it, it’s great to just go ahead and do it."
The main factors driving decisions about need in the admissions process, he explained, are the financial health of the institution and the financial background of the applicants. In the case of Vassar and other peer institutions, Hill said, only about 10 percent of the student population comes from the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution.
"I think this is actually not so much a specific Vassar issue but a selective private issue," she said.
The new admissions policy, passed unanimously by the college's Board of Trustees, will apply to U.S. citizens and permanent residents only.