Darwinian admissions

Are selective universities turning a blind eye to some students in need?


Megan Olden
January 19, 1999 9:25PM (UTC)

Bryn Mawr's past admissions policy was horrible, according to Nancy Monnich, Bryn Mawr College's director of admissions and financial aid. When faced with a finite financial aid budget and a surplus of exceptionally able applicants, the small liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia would accept all eligible candidates, but not make financial aid available to everyone who needed it.

"It created not only confusion, but a lot of anger," she recalls. "It was really pretty dreadful."

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Bryn Mawr's current policy, implemented in 1993, is much easier for Monnich to stomach. Now, if the financial aid pool runs dry before an entire incoming class is accepted, the college accepts remaining applicants only if they can afford to attend with little or no financial help. Monnich maintains that although a difficult choice, the policy change was the kindest option for prospective students. The previous system, she says, "was almost cruel, to sort of tempt them but not make it possible."

Bryn Mawr is not alone in its policy. It might be old news in admissions circles, but many prospective students and their parents have no idea that over the past decade, more selective U.S. colleges and universities have been looking at some applicants' ability to pay as a factor in admission. Schools justify their policies by saying they cannot afford to give aid to all eligible students. Those on the margins of the applicant pool -- up to 10 percent of a given class at some schools -- are accepted only if they can foot the bill themselves. Coined "need sensitive" or "need conscious" in admissions lexicon, this policy denies admission when aid dollars are scarce to a portion of prospective students who -- at least on paper -- don't appear to be able to cough up the dough to pay their own way.

Money has always played a part in the access to American higher education. Although most states have community colleges and state universities that low-income students can afford to attend, the more prestigious schools often have the highest tuition, and even those students who receive financial aid may not be willing to go $100,000 into debt to gamble on an elite education. But does an admissions policy that explicitly chooses rich students over poor smack of fiscal Darwinism?

Thomas Mortenson, policy analyst for the monthly newsletter Postsecondary Education Opportunity, argues that kids on the margins of academic eligibility are often exactly the ones who need aid the most. Statistically speaking, he says, poorer kids don't score as well as their wealthier peers. "When you're talking about how marginal students are treated in admissions, I can tell you with a very high degree of confidence that those are lower-income students that were admitted under the regular admissions criteria," he says. By employing need-sensitivity in admissions, colleges and universities are supporting a more rigid class structure where the rich get richer and the poor have limited access to education. "Instead of breaking down the implications of birth," says Mortenson, "higher education is now reinforcing that."

With no central tracking agency for admission practices, the number of universities employing need-sensitive policies is hard to estimate. Several colleges and universities, including Brown, Carleton, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Trinity (Connecticut), Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, Oberlin, Bowdoin and Vassar, admit they use the practice for a small percentage of enrollees if they run through their financial aid budgets before admitting an entire incoming class. If recent trends continue, more colleges will undoubtedly join their ranks.

Joe Cronin, former president of Boston-area Bentley College, says colleges used to admit students without regard to financial status. "Now," he says, "many have at least one eye open." The schools claim that adopting a need-sensitive policy allows them to guarantee 100 percent of admitted students' financial aid needs. Monnich, for one, says that Bryn Mawr's current policy allows her more peace of mind. "It's much easier to walk into a roomful of students and parents and say that if you're admitted to Bryn Mawr and you need financial aid, you'll get what you need," she says.

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Many American colleges contend their backs are against a wall of mounting financial pressures. Tuition costs at private, four-year universities have risen at three times the rate of inflation since 1971, while federal- and state-supported grant programs have declined since the 1980s, according to the College Board. "People complain, and rightfully so," says David Borus, dean of admission and financial aid at Vassar College, "that the cost of education has outstripped the cost of virtually everything except health care over the last 20 years, but ... even with the slowed rate of growth, the rate of demand on colleges for services, facilities and programs has not slowed."

But in order to stay competitive -- attracting the best and the brightest students -- schools have little choice but to raise money to keep up with the ever-increasing costs of attracting top faculty, investing in technology and maintaining expensive grounds. All this requires big bucks. Financial aid budgets also drain the university coffers. At Vassar, for instance, 60 percent of students last year qualified for some type of grant assistance (at Carleton it was 61 percent and at Bryn Mawr, 54 percent).

But "need-sensitive" admissions policies fly in the face of the ethical guidelines of the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), a nonprofit organization that functions as the conscience of colleges and universities. Stirring ardent debate in the organization over the last six years, the admissions guidelines state that colleges should admit students "without regard to financial need."

In their defense, colleges say it's impossible to reconcile this principle with a later one, which states that colleges should also "meet the full need of accepted students whenever possible." As Vassar's Borus puts it: "You can talk about being need-blind all you like, but you can't be budget-blind."

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Jerry Pope, vice president of admissions practices at NACAC, maintains that need-sensitive admissions involves too much guesswork to be fair. "For all we know, that family may have other support available that makes that school financially affordable," he says. But Paul Thiboutot, dean of admissions at Carleton College, where a need-sensitive policy was enacted in 1994, is quick to quell the notion that students might work or borrow their way through four years at a selective college without institutional support. "It's a nice idea. If that was the case, then we would do it. That particular dream ain't possible anymore. You only create more frustration," he says. And, says Borus, admitting students without offering aid, known in admissions circles as "admit-deny," is "cruel." Besides, he says, "schools that have done admit-deny over the years have found that virtually none of those kids end up coming."

Hand-wringing and sympathetic noises aside, administrators who defend need-sensitive admissions may have a darker motive for adopting such policies. School rankings, like those in U.S. News and World Report, often measure what percentage of the accepted pool actually enroll as an indicator of that school's popularity.

"It looks good for colleges to be able to accept a certain number [of students] and have a good number of those commit," explains NACAC's Pope. "If you accept a lot and a lot don't come there, it just doesn't look good in the rankings." Monnich concedes that Bryn Mawr's switch to a need-sensitive policy improved its numbers slightly. "The year we switched, the yield went up a couple of percentage points," she says. But she hastens to add, "It's not going to change the view of where we are in the world." Carleton's Thiboutot dispels the numbers explanation altogether, maintaining that it had nothing to do with Carleton's decision to consider need for up to 10 percent of each class.

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"We're looking at kids who, although it may sound cold, have no inherent claim on a spot in the class," Vassar's Borus says. And weaker students falling at the borderline tend to be similar in their qualifications. "At that point, you're taking yet another factor into account along with academics and talents, and that's how much it will cost the college to let this student attend as opposed to another," he says.

Will need-sensitive admissions gradually push higher education further out
of reach for the students who need it the most?

Although the current number of students affected is minimal, recent
trends are ominous. With a growing reliance on student loans, continued
decreases in federal grant money, affirmative action programs in jeopardy
around the country and tuition costs continuing to rise, the future of
America's young and less fortunate is anything but certain.

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Amid these conspiring forces, how can poorer students guarantee their
right to scale the ivy walls and reap the fruits of university life?

Aside from testing well, getting stellar grades or becoming a track star or
concert pianist, the sad truth is that there's precious little students can
do to make sure their empty pockets don't influence their admissions. Which
just goes to show, in today's world, it pays to choose your parents wisely.


Megan Olden

Megan Olden is a writer and magazine editor in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Megan Olden

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