The Limitations of Need-Blind Admissions

As much as finances should not matter in making an admissions decision, they should matter when we work to create an equitable and accessible educational experience, Lara Tiedens argues.

January 28, 2020
 
 
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Higher education and national conversations in the wake of the Varsity Blues scandal have largely focused on the fairness of the admissions process and the extent to which wealthy families may use their resources to lower the bar of entry for their children. While closing such loopholes is, and should be, a priority for higher education institutions, it is not the only way in which families’ financial resources unfairly influence students’ access to and experience of higher education. Achieving equity in higher education requires not only making the admission process fairer but also providing students with the financial support necessary to go to college and excel there.

All colleges and universities desire to have fully need-blind admissions processes that allow them to evaluate applicants without considering financial need and to provide all the necessary aid to admitted students. However, the increasing cost to educate leaves very few institutions in the position to provide an unlimited and undefined amount of aid. As a result, many must make a trade-off between providing aid for admitted students and ignoring financial position during the admissions process. A number of “need-blind” colleges admit students regardless of their financial situation and then continue to ignore the financial position of those students throughout their enrollment. This practice is one of the causes of growing student loan debt and dropping graduation rates. Colleges with limited financial resources are left with agonizing decisions about how to balance and prioritize the many needs of their students, faculty members, administrators and institutions over all.

It is a mistake to blame admissions procedures for all the inequities of higher education. We must look deeper and acknowledge a more inherent unfairness: we accept students to our institutions and invite them for the experience of a lifetime, but then we sometimes deprive them of that very experience by allowing them to only glimpse it from the margins while they struggle to balance the competing demands of student life and attaining financial stability.

A student I met three years ago helped me to realize that to truly do what is best for our students, we need to be offering an opportunity for students to thrive financially, socially and psychologically on our campuses. To do so requires not just ignoring financial information at admission time but also, just as important, paying close attention to the finances of the students who enroll.

A Crystallizing Experience

As on most campuses, spring semester is filled with celebrations of students’ academic and co-curricular achievements. In the spring of 2017, I held one such recognition ceremony in my office, without realizing that it would fundamentally shift my perspective of income, access and equity.

Each year, I recognize a student employee for contributions to a particular academic or administrative department based on nominations from faculty and staff members. In this case, the size of the annual Student Employee of the Year Award gathering doubled because, although the nomination came from one department, staff members from a second department also attended and praised this student’s hard work in that office as well. Amid the many compliments for the student’s work ethic, positivity and curiosity, I was struck by the fact that we were presenting this award to a student who held two jobs and was overperforming at each. On top of that, she was managing a full course load during her final year, when all Scripps College students must complete a senior thesis.

That weekend, my son -- who has a sweet tooth -- asked if I could take him to a coffee shop immediately off campus for a treat. The barista recognized me and welcomed me with a warm, familiar smile. It was the student we had honored just days before as Student Employee of the Year, and the coffee shop represented her third job. That encounter left me with questions I continued to reflect on in subsequent weeks. I wondered, what kind of college experience was she having at Scripps? How was her experience reflective of what we had promised her four years earlier? Was she taking full advantage of the curricular and co-curricular opportunities a liberal arts education offers? Or had she spent all four years thinking about how to make ends meet?

Previously, I believed we successfully packaged financial aid to keep students from holding three jobs while also having a full schedule of rigorous coursework. And theoretically, we had. But what I didn’t understand was that the aid packages we presented might not have felt like an equal opportunity to all our students because we include loans in our aid mix. A family earning $70,000 a year perceives the risks of taking on additional debt quite differently than a family earning $200,000.

Because this student and her family may have been loan-averse, she was working three jobs to minimize her debt after graduation. Although she was thriving academically and has since graduated, her life on campus was inconsistent with the immersive residential educational experience we want to deliver at Scripps. Her experience crystallized for me where we need to be better. Each year, we invite hundreds of academically outstanding applicants to join our community. For many families, higher education presents a major financial strain. At what point does that strain eclipse the experience they were invited to join? I want to have confidence that those who accept our offer enjoy the experience we told them they will have.

Like most presidents, I’m prioritizing scholarships in my fundraising efforts with the ultimate goal of making admissions at Scripps need-blind. In the meantime, we have set a financial goal that will change the lives that our lowest-income students lead while they are here on our campus: to provide no-loan financial aid packages for students below a certain income threshold. And for those to whom we do provide aid packages with loans, we aim to maintain a consistent loan amount throughout their four years -- departing from many colleges’ standard practice of increasing the proportion of financial aid that annually comes from loans.

This year, we increased the number of new and continuing students receiving financial aid packages without loans by 40 percent, and next year, we will maintain level loan amounts for incoming seniors. Providing such no-loan financial aid packages will enable us to truly ensure that the college experience -- not just the admissions and acceptance process -- reflects the equitable access to opportunity we aspire to offer to all students on our campuses.

Need-blind admissions, coupled with meeting the full need of all students, is the gold standard all institutions seek to attain. For most colleges and universities, that goal is daunting and, despite our continued focus on increasing the size of our financial aid budgets, seemingly unachievable. For institutions with limited financial aid resources, the push to become need-blind should not dilute our efforts to address the reality of many students’ financial hardships. As much as finances should not matter in making an admissions decision, they should matter when we work to create an equitable and accessible educational experience.

We must continue to seek ways to decrease the financial burden on enrolled low-income students, whether it is through reducing the use of loans or through other methods. Blind decision making may look attractive at the point of admissions, but it could undermine the higher education system when it is applied more widely -- and it doesn’t allow financially vulnerable students to thrive.

Bio

Lara Tiedens is president of Scripps College.

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