Only a small minority of private colleges -- generally among the most elite and most wealthy -- pledge to admit students without regard to financial need and to meet the full financial need of accepted applicants. That group is now smaller, with Haverford College's decision to drop its commitment to need-blind admissions.
The college says changes will be modest. The college will evaluate all applicants as it has in the past (at least for those from the U.S.), without regard to financial need. The college will also determine the size of its financial aid budget for the year. And as long as there is money in the budget, the college will admit applicants as it has done in the past. But the college projects that it will run out of aid money before admitting the entire class and that the last 10-15 students admitted (at a college that typically enrolls about 350 freshmen) will be those who can be admitted without going outside the aid budget.
Haverford officials stress that, some years, there may be enough money so that all of those admitted are selected without going to what is called need-aware admissions. Further, they expect spending on student aid to increase over time, but based on plans, not on an unlimited commitment. But the college is no longer pledging to admit without regard to need.
Further, the college aims to increase the size of its entering class by about seven students a year, to gradually increase size without changing the character of the college, where faculty-student interaction is prized.
As has been the case at other colleges that have moved away from need-blind admissions (or considered doing so), many students have spoken out against the shift. The decision is being announced at a time when the college is relatively empty, but officials were open through the spring about keeping the idea under consideration -- and many students weighed in then.
"Shifting to a need-aware policy is not only unfair to applicants but to Haverford as a community. We espouse our commitment to diversity, but how true can this be if 'diversity' is slowly becoming skewed to mean 'financially viable diversity'?" wrote a student, Hannah Krohn, in a column in The Clerk, the student newspaper. "If we are going to shift to becoming a need-aware school we need to be explicit that either our goals have changed or our level of commitment has. Our budget is the tangible representation of our priorities. There will always be money for things we value."
Krohn added: "Upholding the need-blind admissions policy is upholding a moral principle and prioritizing a student’s education and place in the community over the potential cost to the school. Becoming need aware may not seem like a large change, but it is a significant move away from these principles, damaging the community now and in the future."
Kimberly W. Benston, the college's president, responded to that column with an open letter outlining why such a change might be necessary.
He wrote that need-blind admissions is based on an "equally blind faith -- namely, that we will never fall short in our ability to make ends meet (for others and for ourselves, now and into perpetuity)."
In the letter, Benston cited the financial challenges created by shifts in the college's demographics and the growing financial need of students in recent years, and in particular since the economic downturn that hit in 2008.
The discount rate (the average percentage off the sticker price paid by students and their families) has gone up from 32 percent in 2009 to a projected 43 percent in 2017. Further, he noted that during those years, the percentage of the college's budget spent on financial aid has increased from 15 percent to 20 percent, and the percentage of students on aid has gone up from 40 percent to 50 percent.
Benston raised the question of what would happen if these trends continued, even as the college tried to limit tuition increases. At what point, he asked, is placing need blindness above all other issues wrong for the college?
"What I’m asking, basically, is how far our mitigation can extend," he wrote. "Is it theoretically limitless? Let’s consider the hypothetical scenario of a year in which everyone admitted to Haverford turned out to need full financial support. This limit case should hardly sound bizarre, since it’s not preposterous to imagine that there are 350 excellent students around the globe who, on admission, could demonstrate a need for full tuition, room and board."
Haverford is, compared to most of private higher education, wealthy and successful. It boasts of highly competitive admissions, committed faculty members, a beautiful campus and an endowment just shy of half a billion dollars.
But even if that makes Haverford fortunate compared to most private colleges, it is not nearly as wealthy as top liberal arts colleges that it considers peers. It ranks No. 177 ($495 million) on the list of 2015 endowment values prepared by the National Association of College and University Business Officers and the Commonfund Institute. Top liberal arts colleges (that remain need blind) include Swarthmore College, which is 49th on the list with an endowment of more than $1.8 billion, and Amherst College, which is 41st, with an endowment of $2.2 billion. (The top colleges on the list are need-blind research universities with larger endowments, broader missions and much larger student bodies than is the case for liberal arts colleges.)
Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford, stressed via email that the aid budget will continue to increase, and that the commitment to low-income students will not change in what he called a "managed financial aid budget."
He added: "I do worry about the symbolism of the shift, and I do believe that the symbolism will suggest a much greater change to our process than will actually be the case. Access and affordability remains central to our mission and will remain a priority in the work we are doing in admission and beyond. We will have to work harder to convey and demonstrate this commitment without a doubt …. And while we would rather not have to consider ability to pay at any stage of our process, we are privileged to have an extraordinarily deep applicant pool. Even if there is a stage of our decision making where ability to pay is a factor, the academic and personal qualifications of those students will not be diminished whatsoever."
Pros and Cons
The colleges that have moved away from need-blind admissions have generally made similar arguments as those offered at Haverford.
In a 2004 letter to alumni, students and faculty members of Macalester College, in advance of a move away from need-blind admissions, President Brian Rosenberg noted that leaders of colleges face numerous demands to spend more on various campus priorities.
"Virtually everyone would agree that in the best of all possible worlds the perpetuation of our current policy of need-blind admissions -- indeed, the expansion of that policy to include transfer and international students -- would be a good," he said. "At the same time, and only within the past year, the faculty has voted not to reduce staffing levels in our programs in Russian and Japanese and to bolster staffing in our popular environmental studies program; students, faculty and parents have lamented the absence of Chinese-language instruction, and students have petitioned for the addition of a program in Middle Eastern studies; parents and students have questioned the absence of more living space on campus and have protested against the loss of Nordic skiing as an intercollegiate sport; many have approached me to complain with some justice about our outdated facilities for students in art, theater and music and for recreation and athletics …."
He added that "no one, by contrast, has approached me to lobby for the elimination or reduction of any current program or activity."
And Rosenberg argued that "to ensure the viability of Macalester for years to come, the goals of access and quality must be brought into sensible and appropriate balance."
Wesleyan University cited similar reasons in 2012 in opting to end need-blind admissions. Some students, without success, rallied to urge the college to reverse course. A student essay in the student paper there called the shift "an attack on diversity and meritocracy, the very principles which underlie our institution."
But Moody's Investors Service praised the shift, saying that "these actions … are credit positive for Wesleyan, as well as other selective private colleges that could look to this model as an avenue for growing tuition revenue in an increasingly difficult higher education market burdened by stiffening tuition price resistance and rising student loan burden."
Grinnell College in 2012 announced it was considering a shift away from need-blind admissions, citing similar reasons as those put forth at Wesleyan, Macalester and Haverford. But amid much concern from students and alumni, Grinnell announced the next year that it would keep need-blind admissions for the time being while pursuing other strategies to avoid what college leaders consider overdependence on endowment earnings for the college's budget. Grinnell is planning to review the policy again in 2018.
Some colleges have moved toward need-blind admissions while also meeting the full need of all admitted applicants. Vassar College for many years had such a policy, but abandoned it in 1996-97, saying it could no longer afford it. In 2007, Vassar went back to its old policy of being fully need-blind and meeting full need. And the college has stuck with that policy even though it had the misfortune to make the 2007 switch a year before Wall Street took a dive and college endowments saw their values shrink substantially.
During the years Vassar was not need blind, it was only need aware for a small share of the admitted class.
But Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar, said in a 2007 interview with Inside Higher Ed that the shift back to need blind sent an important message to prospective students. "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," she said.
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