According to Catharine Hill, president of Vassar College, the most critical issues facing college leaders today include “affordability, the nation’s growing income gap, and the need for a diverse student population.” The visibility of such issues today is due largely to the fact that current financial aid practices at many of the country’s elite and private colleges are becoming unsustainable. One of the most problematic of such practices is also a kind of sacred cow among many private colleges: need-blind admissions.
Need blind admission is, essentially, accepting students regardless of their ability to pay. With tuition at top private schools coming in at $200,000 or more over four years of enrollment, need blind admission is kind of a big deal as the other, implied end of the equation is that the colleges themselves fill the gap between what the student can pay and what the cost of attendance will be.
In a story reported on National Public Radio (NPR) and highlighted by Vassar’s Hill in her piece, Grinnell College in Iowa, one of the country’s highest-ranked small liberal arts colleges, announced that it was reviewing its financial aid policies because its assistance to students was outpacing income from its foundation. As a need-blind school, Grinnell’s announcement has particularly chilling implications for its needier students. Hill also pointed out that Wesleyan University is simply going to end its need-blind admission policy because it can no longer afford to fill the gap between its tuition and its students’ expected (or available) contribution.
The fact that this dialogue is even occurring is what gets me.
I think we can all acknowledge that there are colleges out there that we feel are the exclusive purview of the wealth. These colleges are historically elitist, hard to get into, and damned expensive. Such colleges can also be very generous to students that they see as exceptional, and admit them with considerable financial assistance. I think that that’s okay. It’s a kind of way of the world that many of us have accepted. I didn’t need to go to Princeton, anyway.
It’s the next tier of schools that I find irritating. There are some fine colleges out there. Wesleyan, I’m sure is nice. As is Chicago’s Loyola (and all the other Loyola’s of the world), I bet. But are they really academically superior to the University of Connecticut or the University of Illinois – or Michigan, or UCLA or Stony Brook? I kinda don’t think that they are. Yet they cost two to four times as much to attend. My friend Katie, who I’ve mentioned on this site, is graduating high school this year. She was accepted at Chicago Loyola, offered $50,000 in scholarship money (paid over four years) and was still on the hook for more than $20,000 per year. Is her degree from Loyola going to be more valuable than one from a public Big Ten school? Probably not.
So why are such colleges charging so much that they are pricing students out of admission? All such practices are doing is eroding accessibility of private colleges for students. This means that mid-level private colleges are going to end up competing for tuition dollars with much better schools, schools that are without a doubt academically superior, while the rest of the students seek refuge on the (slightly) more affordable campuses of public schools.
There is obviously some sort of insidious calculus going on here that we don’t know about. If a school is charging so much that it’s maxing out all external aid and then has to make up the difference by giving money to a student who is just going to give it back to the school… doesn’t that just mean that the school is charging too much? It sounds like such schools are simply trying to launder foundation dollars earmarked for student aid and get them back into the general fund, doesn’t it?
If I owe you $40, and pay you $20, then you lend me the other $20 to pay you back, how is anything different? I am out $20 and still owe you $20; or you’re out $20. Either way, if you’d just charged me the $20 to begin with, we’d all be on sounder financial footing.
Okay, I know my argument is facile. But there is something to it. In light of the income gap that Hill pointed out, college is too expensive. It just is. If they can’t even afford to pay us so that we can pay them, they are going to start losing students. This, in turn, will drive up tuition and drive away students who are can’t afford it, which in this country, often means students from diverse populations. Being need blind is one thing, but colleges these days are being blind to the need for lower cost of attendance