A Retreat From 'Need Blind'

April 6, 2009

For leading private colleges and universities, the 2006-7 and 2007-8 academic years were periods of excitement, as institutions greatly expanded the generosity of their aid policies, eliminating loans for some or all students and providing grants that made even the most expensive of colleges (by sticker price) significantly more affordable for many families.

For some of those same colleges and universities, 2008-9 is the year reality set in -- meaning practical decisions are starting to overtake idealism when it comes to financial aid. No colleges have undone the policies they announced with so much fanfare a year or two ago, and all colleges in that group are saying that they will meet all commitments made to students who enrolled on the basis of those policies. Quietly, however, a few college and university officials have noted that their presidents and provosts have adjusted their rhetoric slightly, and are talking more about keeping commitments to current students and applicants -- and a little less emphatically about keeping those commitments to new students.

Much of the change going on this year appears not to involve official shifts in policies. Colleges know that early decision applicants tend to be wealthier than others, or that international students enrolling as undergraduates may not be covered by “need blind” admissions policies -- those that require decisions to be made without regard to financial need. So colleges that fill a larger share of their classes through early decision or with international undergraduates can spend a little less than they would otherwise on aid, without acknowledging a change in aid policy.

But Tufts University shows that even colleges that spend more on financial aid than ever before and try to do the right thing in admissions may this year hit a financial brick wall at some point in the process. Tufts is a highly competitive institution that has in recent years improved its aid policies while also taking a stand against excessive use of early decision. For several years now, Tufts has had a goal of going need-blind, and one of the targets of its current fund raising campaign has been to raise enough money to do so.

In each of the previous two years, Tufts has been de facto need-blind in admissions. While the university wasn’t yet ready to pledge to be need-blind, in case the numbers didn’t work, the university tried to be need-blind, and found it could. Need-blind is, to many, the gold standard of colleges' admissions and financial aid policies, but only a few dozen private institutions have such an approach.

This admissions season, Tufts started out that way and every folder was read in a need-blind process. But when 95 percent of the class was full, Tufts had spent its entire financial aid budget and so had to be “need aware” for the last 5 percent of slots, in effect favoring the wealthy for those positions.

Tufts was forced to do this, according to Kim Thurler, a spokeswoman, because the university used up its aid budget. This year, while making cuts in most program areas, Tufts increased its budget for financial aid by about 12 percent. But Thurler said that “virtually all” of the additional funds were needed because of increased need for students who were enrolled previously. To keep its commitment to those students, there was no money left for additional spending on the new undergraduate class.

At the same time, Thurler said that Tufts still has the goal of going need-blind, even if this isn’t the year.

By many measures, the resulting class is strong. Out of 15,038 applicants, 26 percent were admitted, with the goal of a freshman class of 1,275. SAT averages are up (average score 1449), as they have been for every one of the last seven years.

One category of demographics featured a notable change this year that may not be desirable for social policy. In an admissions season during which many more students than ever before are applying for financial aid, Tufts saw a one-percentage point drop -- to 55 percent -- in the number of those admitted who are on financial aid.

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