Roth Responds: Need-Blind Aid at Wesleyan
The Argus recently sat down with President Michael Roth for a meeting on a wide range of campus issues. Part of the discussion focused on Roth’s response to student concerns about the end of need-blind admissions at the University. Because of the high level of student interest in this topic as well as Roth’s particularly comprehensive answers, The Argus Editorial staff chose to print Roth’s remarks on the need-blind debate in full.
The Argus: What prompted you to end the policy, and were there any other programs or policies you considered cutting in lieu of this?
President Michael Roth: Obviously we considered lots of other things. We have moved to use a different set of economic assumptions for the future, so that in addition to having robust financial aid, we’d have economic resources to run the University at a level that is attractive to people with or without scholarships. The trends that we discussed at those meetings show there’s about a five-million-dollar structural issue. During a series of meetings with the Trustees, the Faculty, and the WSA we talked about some of the alternatives to limiting or capping the amount spent on financial aid. Those all seemed to be worse than the path we chose. The path we chose is actually to spend about a third of the budget on financial aid, and we think that will allow roughly the [same] number of students on financial aid that has pretty much been the case at Wesleyan except in the last few years, when the number has grown.
If we had more money, we wouldn’t do this. We’re not doing this because it’s proper, but it does cost money to run a school, and I don’t think that the steps other institutions have taken to preserve the label of need-blindness are steps that we should take. Not that I am happy about our own decision; I think it’s a horrible thing, actually. But I can’t see how to run the school in a way that is worth it for students who come here and promise that no matter how much it costs to offer scholarships, we’ll do it. I just can’t say that, it seems to me dishonest. We’d been on a path of so much spending, and I thought we had to change.
Wesleyan has cut its staff by 11 percent, and I canceled over two hundred million dollars in capital-improvement projects. I also thought that our financial aid packaging was not as effective as it should be. When I started in 2007, we required too many loans for students, many more than some schools in our peer group. So we decided a couple of things. First, it was important to meet the full need of students. Second, we decided to restrict tuition increases to inflation. You all know, because it affects every student, that we raise tuition in excess of inflation and more than our peer group in part to help pay for scholarships. This is a Robin Hood solution. If people can afford to pay, we can charge even more, but at a certain point the only people who are not going to be on financial aid are really wealthy people; and the people who need the most aid will be people with very limited resources, and a lot of people will just not be able to do it. We’re going to raise tuition, not as much as we possibly can, as had been the policy, but we’ll raise tuition in sync with inflation. If your family can afford to pay whatever for Wesleyan, I will go and see your family and ask them to give us money, but I won’t charge you. We would have continued the policy of being aggressive on tuition increases, but I didn’t think we could do this forever. It’s my job to make sure we have resources, but I don’t think it works to keep increasing tuition because if we’re so much more expensive than Yale, Williams, or Middlebury, people who can afford it will ask why our price is so high. We can tell them it’s because we’re so much better (and we are, of course, better), but we’re better not because of the money we spend. In fact, we don’t spend as much money per student as any of those schools.
Our third decision was to highlight a three-year option for some students. It might be a way of having a Wesleyan experience that is more affordable. This is the only thing that I found that reduces the cost of tuition significantly without changing the experience in the classroom, though obviously it changes the experience on campus.
We expect our changes to budgeting will affect 10 percent of the incoming class, though it’s hard to know for sure. We’re going to go through the applications need-blind. Then, let’s say we’ve admitted two thirds of the students and we’ve only used half of the financial aid, then we can be need-blind for the whole [class]. We will be as need-blind as we can afford to be. But chances are, given the data we’ve had for the past few years, we anticipate that in the last roughly ten percent, somewhat more than the waitlist, we will have to pay attention to the ability to pay. And I hate this. I hate to even say it, frankly. This is a business decision, and it’s terrible, but it’s not as terrible as the alternative, which is to say at Wesleyan we don’t do research in science, and we’re going to get rid of all research. Or at Wesleyan we don’t do athletics or at Wesleyan all the professors teach four courses because we don’t care about publication. There are lots of things that we could cut to make it more affordable, even though some of those things aren’t my favorite things about Wesleyan, they are favorite things for a lot of people.
We have found other ways to save some money, and we’ll continue to implement them, but they’re on the order of tens of thousands of dollars; they don’t change the structure. What I’ve just described to you, not raising tuition aggressively and being as generous as we can afford to be, but not more than that, seemed to me to be the least-bad option. About 72 percent of our budget comes from student tuition. Would I be happier if half of our budget came from the endowment? Absolutely. We wouldn’t have to even charge as much then. What other schools do is they get much nicer chairs, they plan trips—I was in Princeton this spring, and the level of the display of wealth is amazing. Here at Wesleyan, there are places where we can save money, and we’re looking for those places. But most of the big savings would involve people. These are not abstract cuts, they’re layoffs. This has been on my mind a lot, and I know it’s been on the minds of students. Changing our budget process for financial aid is not a good thing, but I think it’s a preferable thing to the masquerade of raising loans. Meanwhile we will continue to search for students who have no money to pay for tuition, because they’re great students and they find great students. We’re going to continue to do that.
A: Are you going to continue working with QuestBridge?
MR: I am. We’re also going to work with dozens of community-based organizations that bring us talented students. We know it’s more likely than not that they’ll need a full scholarship, and that’s great; that’s why people come here. People who can pay come here for these reasons [of student culture] and that’s one of the things which is so important. So if we said we’re going to continue being need-blind, but we’re going to raise our SAT standards, we’d save a lot of money, but I think the impact would be much more widespread. So we are raising money for scholarships, it’s our highest priority and as we raise more money and as we contain more costs, we’ll be able to offer more scholarships. But I think paying attention to how much we spend and how much we give away is the responsible thing to do.
A: What do you think of the student support and the movement to make admissions need-blind again? Would you continue maintaining the policy based on the students’ suggestions and responses?
MR: One hundred million dollars in the endowment would pay for it, and I would jump at the opportunity.
A: Would it be a hundred million dollars up front or five million dollars a year?
MR: Five a year would work, we’d have to be on top of what we were doing. I’m not opposed to need-blind unless it’s hypocritical. After all, there are schools that say they’re need-blind which will have the same percentage of students on scholarships as we will have from now on out. I think it’s about how many people you can have on scholarships that actually meet their need. That’s the issue, and we won’t have enough; I’m not pretending about this. I wish we had more resources in this area, and over time we will have more.
A: Another thought is that it’s inherently problematic to directly deny admission to students who can’t pay, which is essentially the result of this since you have the last ten percent who would not be admitted. Some people are thinking it makes more sense to cut back on the financial aid we offer and allow students to find funding maybe through loans or outside scholarships, but at least give people the option to attend.
MR: We have talked about this, I agree with the conclusion as did other members of the staff that this option would be worse. [This] would be worse for you not only in your four years on campus, but for everyone else involved. But I understand there are competing values which are both legitimate. I don’t have an argument to say it’s wrong to not meet full need, but the reason I prefer it less is because almost everyone we’re rejecting is also qualified to be here as much as any of us. We reject 80 percent of the people who apply, 75 percent of the people who apply are qualified, but we reject them because we have no room for them. We don’t take the people who are “the best,” we try to make an interesting class, but we’ve rejected people because they went to a high school from which a mass of people applied. So many are qualified, and we have only a few spots. I have to figure out how to take into account the people who pay and have to balance that with the fact that most people are rejected even if they can pay and are qualified.
You raised what I think is a basic issue, some people will have said that they think it would be better to not meet full need and to do it blindly, but then there’s the question of QuestBridge and other proactive efforts to find students with high need and high qualifications. Because that’s not blind, that’s trying to find people who haven’t had all of the benefits some of the people who go to Wesleyan have had.
A: How much of the class is generally full of QuestBridge Scholars? That’s another thing that’s been brought up: students who are low income may not know about programs like QuestBridge, and so it can leave them out. So I’m curious is there a percentage or a number?
MR: It’s a small percentage. It’s varied a little bit; I think it’s around 10 students per year. The students have done great, and we have a lot of organizations we’ve worked with. For instance Prep For Prep, which is a long-standing, community-based organization, we’ve had more students from Prep For Prep than almost any of our peer groups. I think Harvard may be the only elite school to have more than us. We’re going to continue that. Many of these students have grant packages without loans. When I started in 2007 [one thing I did] was to reduce loans for all students on aid, which added a few million dollars to the financial aid budget. Some could say (and have said), why don’t you just put the loans back up? I actually think it’s a greater negative effect on the educational climate of the campus. I don’t like the partially need-aware position in which we find ourselves, but I think it’s not as bad as the options left to me. We could continue this road, and it wouldn’t be three years from now we would crash, but eight years from now we’d have economic catastrophe, and my job is to steer away from that with as little negative impact as possible.
A: Do you consider this to be a tentative policy?
MR: I don’t even consider it as a policy. I’m a pragmatist, if I found more money next year I would add it to scholarships. As we add more money to scholarships, we will give out more, and maybe the ten percent becomes five percent, or maybe it goes away. That doesn’t mean I’ll cut everybody’s salaries to do that because then I’d lose good professors, and people would say “I have access to Wes, and I have financial aid but the education stinks.” And that I think is backwards, and so I need to protect the quality of the educational experience as best I can by raising money. Eventually our endowment is going to make it more possible to increase the percentage of students admitted through blind-aid.
The other piece of this is that though our tuition has gone up, wages in America have not gone up. So it’s harder for people to pay for this, and so moderating tuition I think is an important piece of making Wesleyan more affordable. This is not as visible, but over ten years I think it will make a difference.
A: Will this policy go into effect for the Class of 2017?
MR: We’re using that assumption. It’s a budget sort of thing. We’ve allocated this much money to financial aid, and we’re assuming we’re not going to raise tuition as much so every year we’ll do both, and every year I hope we’re able to do more on financial aid. But I think if the pressure is to be need-blind, it’s too easy for someone in my position to fake it. I think the key is how much are you spending on scholarships, how can we be spending more on scholarships without compromising why people want to come here in the first place.