The Problem with “Resigned Acceptance” in the Need-Blind Debate
In the most recent weekly poll put out by Wesleying asking “Which option below aligns most closely with your thoughts on the administrative plan to scale back need-blind admissions?,” the most popular student response has been, “I don’t like it, but I think it’s necessary, considering the University’s financial situation.”
Bracketing the concerns of representative sampling and the limited responses offered to the question, this sentiment of “resigned acceptance”—of “I don’t like it, but I think it’s necessary, considering the University’s financial situation”—nonetheless seems to pervade our campus. And it is not difficult to see why: it is exactly what we have been told to believe. In Michael Roth’s interview with The Argus on Sept. 10, he stated, “This is a business decision, and it’s terrible, but it’s not as terrible as the alternative.” Need awareness is simply an economic necessity, end of story.
While student response to this interview—ranging from The Need Blind Focus Group postering fliers to an editorial written by the Editors-in-Chief of The Argus and a senior editor of Wesleying—was strong and focused in many ways on the political implications of such a change in policy, Roth’s interview was followed soon after by a piece by Economics Professor Gil Skillman on Sept. 16. As former Chair of the Faculty, Skillman wrote to the Need Blind Focus Group of his deep support for a need-blind policy, but also points to the economic circumstances that make this policy pragmatically infeasible in light of the University’s current financial situation. And thus the mentality of “resigned acceptance” was born, held up by the hands of faculty as logically sound.
The goal of this Wespeak is to criticize this “resigned acceptance” mentality from two perspectives. The first is that of Roth, who has, over the course of what we will argue to be a poorly transparent dialogue with students, framed the debate as almost solely economic. This line of argument both works to ignore the political implications that went into and will result from the need-aware policy and also provides an effective way to ignore the serious questions of integrity about our institution. The second is the perspective of Skillman, who does provide an economic-political argument for need awareness but fails to address what we feel to be the full reality of the situation. As a result, we believe that the mentality of “resigned acceptance” stands on weak ground at best. We must as a student body dig deeper into this issue and hold the University accountable for its decisions that will affect both current and future generations of Wesleyan students.
We begin with Roth.
On the front page of the Wesleyan website, right above links to “Give,” “Apply,” and “Tour,” there is a link to the “Wesleyan 2020” blog. Adopted by the Board of Trustees in May 2010, “Wesleyan 2020” provides a framework for planning over the next 10 years. Goal Three of this framework is to “work within a sustainable economic model while retaining core values,” which includes an objective to “maintain [a] ‘need blind’ admissions policy.”
The “Wesleyan 2020” blog exemplifies that questions concerning financial aid are not simply economical, but also ethical. The University explicitly acknowledged in the creation of “Wesleyan 2020” that economic practicality must be taken into account, the idea of not discriminating against applicants on the basis of their family’s socioeconomic status exists within the fundamental value system of the University.
In a forum hosted by Wesleying on Monday, Sept. 24, Roth began his short speech preceding a Q&A by stating that “if we had more money, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” suggesting that the “conversation” is “being had” because the University is pragmatically in financial trouble because of its model and must decide what, if any, economically unsustainable practices should be privileged over sustainability. However, given “Wesleyan 2020,” it appears that this “conversation” had already happened in 2010. The question becomes whether the circumstances of the University’s economic standing have changed drastically enough in two years that the issue required revisitation by the President and the Board.
At the Sept. 24 forum, this question was not answered. The information that Roth presented, however, was also already largely available when “Wesleyan 2020” was passed—tuition dependence from 2005 to today, financial aid as a percentage of the total budget from 1997 to today, etc. From the graphs presented, it also didn’t appear as though there were huge jumps between 2010 and 2012. Was “Wesleyan 2020” passed without any forethought as to subsequent trends, without any consideration for future sustainability? How is it that our President and Board of Trustees were able to pledge support to “maintain [a] ‘need blind’ admissions policy” in a way that was “economically sustainable” in 2010 but claim, as Roth does in the forum, that “there would be no prospect of maintaining the University at all 10 years from now” in 2012? Door #1 is administrative naivety in 2010; Door #2 is a fundamental, unpredictable economic shift over the last two years; Door #3 is a shift away from the “core values” discussed in “Wesleyan 2020.”
Students are left to play Let’s Make a Deal with the reason why. Maybe the answer is conveniently tucked away behind one of those doors; maybe the answer is an intricate amalgamation of all three; maybe some other unseen door exists. We simply do not know. And it is precisely because we do not know (and because of the possibility of Door #3) that “resigned acceptance” proves problematic.
Additionally, three other problems lurk in this Let’s Make a Deal game that Roth is forcing students to play. The first problem is of accountability for how this University is represented. It appears that the President and the Board of Trustees are able to tear down the “core values” they espoused just two years ago to applicants and current students without explanation or recourse. This sets a dangerous precedent for the institution to be able to walk back on any position it makes and brings into question whether these “core values” are true or just for show. It appears that their actual values shift with the winds.
The second is the problem of transparency. This is thoroughly laid out in the Sept. 13 article “Campus Editors for Need-Blind,” written by the Argus Editors-in-Chief and a senior Wesleying editor, and does not need to be rehashed here by students less versed about the issue of transparency than them. If you have not yet read it, suffice it to say that the authors of the editorial trace out, in great detail, the ways in which they believe they were not only misled as reporters by the administration, but also how they felt conversations about a policy shift and its final announcement were made with calculated language and with calculated timing.
Given what we ourselves have seen, we agree. And the only defense of transparency by the administration, in response, appears to be to scapegoat the few students who were involved in the “conversations”, suggesting—as one member of the Board of Trustees did at the Sept. 23 meeting that was disrupted by students—that these few students 1) were privy to all information and 2) had the burden of responsibility to pass it on to the student body. While we indeed have student representatives for the purposes of working with the administration, we feel that the gravity of the situation is one that requires transparency to all and not just a half-hearted claim that “we’ve been transparent the whole time” simply because a few students were told selective information.
We believe that such a lack of transparency and the failure of Roth to be explicit about the reason for the policy change from two years ago when a ten year plan was crafted lead students, rightly or wrongly, to tend toward Door #3. Wesleyan’s values have shifted, not its economic situation.
The final problem is that of community. In the Sept. 24 forum, Roth analogizes need-blind financial aid to the “Robin Hood Financial Aid Process.” Indeed, we are not ignorant to the obvious reality that some of the tuition of those students whose parents can pay goes to the financial aid of those whose parents cannot. However, students find value in socioeconomic diversity, and it appears to be a value also enshrined in the institution’s “core values” according to “Wesleyan 2020.”
Ignoring the relative value of financial aid for students in the way that Roth is doing in order to create and maintain his economic argument generates a feeling of alienation among students on financial aid. These students, in the eyes of the University, rest on the economic backs of those who can afford to come; we have been collapsed into a dichotomy of “those who can pay” and “those who cannot,” a simplifying and divisive conglomeration. His rhetoric, whether intentionally or unintentionally, frames students on financial aid as ultimately a burden on a University that was intended to exist as a playground for the wealthy and is able to close its doors to these undesirables just as easily as it had opened them.
Perhaps that is true; perhaps this process is indeed simply one of realizing the elitism associated with liberal arts institutions more broadly. But is the job of a president not to at least pretend that everyone matters equally, to articulate a vision that each student is unique and contributes to the intricate web of interests and values that “Diversity University” is known for?
For someone who has done such a superb job of reframing the entirety of the need-blind issue, it is shocking how little concern Roth is showing for students currently on financial aid in the process. As a result, some students on financial aid now are beginning to feel either like accidents or socioeconomic tokens, dissociated from the University they were told was diverse and accepting. If we resign ourselves to a solely economic perspective, we lose any semblance of seeing value in having students on financial aid here at all. Here we see again the concern of Door #3.
We believe that Roth’s line of argument is weakly formed, disregards the obvious political considerations in a way that further limits transparency, operates in a way that treats financial aid students as an onus to the entire Wesleyan community, and is fundamentally inconsistent with the values that Wesleyan has historically bolstered, including those found in “Wesleyan 2020.” To be sure, Roth has left students with nothing but questions since the announcement of the need-aware policy in May, largely because of his failed rhetoric and lack of transparency. We feel that these are both areas that Professor Skillman attempts to address; his writing operates transparently and with an argument that incorporates both the politics and the economics of the situation.
Indeed, Professor Skillman provided the student body with a thoughtful and articulate analysis of the structure of Wesleyan’s current problems. One can look through Professor Skillman’s published work or take a couple minutes to talk to him in person, and it is clear that he is articulate, brilliant, and cares about Wesleyan students. However, we believe that Skillman’s piece has shed light on only some of the writing on the wall, and the student mentality of “resigned acceptance” should not follow unquestioningly from his claims.
The point on which Professor Skillman expands the most is in discussing how Wesleyan offers less-than-generous financial aid packages. He coins the term “need-neutral” and defines it as “hav[ing] the same true net coverage of assessed financial need, regardless of the level of need.” With respect to need-neutrality, Professor Skillman states that “there are two key dimensions in play regarding the competitiveness, and thus the effective need-neutrality, of our financial aid packages: how expansively the institution defines ‘need’ (including such considerations as what earnings expectation it has for students and how many trips home during the school year are allowed), and what percentage of assessed need is met by loans instead of grants.” Based on this, he concludes that a need-aware policy with a financial aid cap would both help the University to not overspend its operating budget on financial aid and also provide the possibility of giving students who receive financial aid more competitive packages.
We believe that this is not in-line with the reality of the situation in two respects. First, and most simply, Roth and the Board of Trustees have not discussed how we will increase grants and decrease loans in the near future. They have instead chosen to focus their discussion on how we can curb spending on financial aid. While it is possible that both can happen simultaneously, we believe that obvious questions arise as to whether the former actually will occur given that it has not been a point of discussion by administrators crafting the policy, at least in public.
The novelty of this argument blends into our second concern regarding the reality of the situation: accountability. How can this school be held accountable for offering more grants and fewer loans? For what Skillman is proposing here to be placed into practice, the Office of Financial Aid and the Office of Admissions must be intimately involved. And yet these offices have been surprisingly silent on the issue of need-blind more broadly, let alone how packages will change.
Can we really say “I will accept need-awareness if it means that accepted students on financial aid will get better deals” if we have no idea whether this will even occur? To be sure, we are not advocating here for the admissions or financial aid process to be completely transparent; that would be pragmatically unfeasible, if not impossible. And yet are we ready to sacrifice a need-blind admissions process based on a hunch that one professor holds but no administrator has voiced as something that will be a reality in the near future? For this shift to work, it must be deeply accepted by the hive-mind of the University and explicated to a variety of departments and offices. Without this, it will fall. We believe that, while Skillman’s argument is indeed possible, it does not prove realistic based on what we have seen thus far.
Additionally, with a hint of irony, Skillman’s failure to elucidate accountability fortuitously exposes potential areas of exploitation. A cap is simply that: an upper limit. Nothing stops the University from operating below that cap. Although we do not find this to be particularly probable, the problem we see is that there is no mechanism of accountability that prevents it or even prevents the potential for that cap to be lowered in subsequent years in order to say that we are spending up to the cap. When a slippery slope is veiled, it does not mean it is not there.
Here we come to see that not only is the need-awareness policy questionable from a value perspective, but also riddled with holes of accountability in the way it was crafted. And the potential for exploitation because of these holes is never addressed by Skillman.
From there, Skillman goes on to discuss how the percentage of students in the middle class has been dropping, which therefore indicates a failure of need-blind. He seems to imply that this is because Wesleyan cannot provide as competitive of financial aid packages as other schools because of its financial situation. But there is no counterfactual situation that is discussed. What are the causal impacts of need-blind that would somehow lead to the middle class dropping out? It is entirely within the realm of possibility that the income distribution at Wesleyan will become even more skewed if we cut need-blind but do not increase grant size (as is the current structure that is proposed by Roth and the Board of Trustees).
Pointing to the increase in high-income students as a reason for why need-blind has failed as a policy parallels pointing to the high unemployment rate and saying that it is proof that Obama’s stimulus package failed. Yes, we have high unemployment, but many believe it would be much higher without the stimulus. Just because a policy has not been a silver-bullet to end a problem does not mean that the policy is necessarily ineffective. The need-blind issue is more complex than one single policy and one single outcome.
Overall, we find any argument that cutting need-blind helps the middle class to rest on shaky ground at best, as the administration has not been open to discussing how loans will be decreased and grants will be increased in the near future. This shift away from need-blind is meant to curb spending, not to redistribute aid.
We do not mean to say that Skillman is in the wrong. Indeed, he is a brilliant man, and we applaud him for taking the initiative to create a dialogue when he saw that conversations with the administration were failing. However, without a response this is not dialogue at all. We do not believe that Skillman simply hopes for “resigned acceptance” as a result of his email either; we invite a rebuttal and hope for a continued dialogue between Skillman and students.
The most common response we hear to our criticism over student “resigned acceptance” is questioning the need for student involvement at all. We are students, and Wesleyan is a business; it will sometimes make decisions that they feel are necessary, and who are we to have any say whatsoever since we are not even close to qualified to deal with these problems.
To this we respond that our University is not Rite Aid—it is not a business that is set up and decides at what prices to set its goods, and then it is up to us to decide if we want to shop there or at CVS. The University has a longstanding history of student engagement and involvement, where student voices do not trump absolute necessities but are still taken into consideration with due respect. We are more than just consumers. We are a community. And as such we deserve some say in the policies that will drastically affect us. Indeed, there is nothing illegal about running Wesleyan like Rite Aid (and we mean no disrespect to Rite Aid either), but it does lead to deep questions about our value system and integrity more broadly.
We are also not ignorant to the fact that mechanisms are coming into place. Most notably, WSA President Zach Malter has developed a Student Budget Sustainability Task Force, which will work on the development of possible alternatives to these issues. But we want to note here as well that it was a student who forced his foot into the closing door of the administration. This was not developed out of administrative transparency, but instead out of student action and the rejection of “resigned acceptance.” Indeed, maybe this group will determine that need-awareness is the best solution, or that other alternatives are not feasible. But at least student voices will be heard, and we will not resign ourselves to what we are told.
The move from need-blindness to need-awareness is one that troubles many members of the Wesleyan community. We assume (hope?) that there are very few students that will raise their hands and applaud discrimination based on socioeconomic status in the admissions process. But nonetheless, at least as the Wesleying poll shows, many students are willing to accept it, for reasons that we believe are insufficient to warrant such a toll in values. The Wesleyan community is already changing even before the arrival of the Class of 2017, as students currently on financial aid begin to feel ostracized and burdensome. And we do not know what is yet to be seen.
Now is not the time for “resigned acceptance.” It is the time for asking questions. It is the time for holding the administration accountable for its actions. It is the time for making sure that the University is not shying away from its “Wesleyan 2020” values that we as students also believe in. It is the time to make sure that Wesleyan does not turn into a convenience store, that consumer collaboration and consideration is taken into account. It is time to be critical and make sure that this truly is necessary given the gravity of the ramifications.
Do not choose “resigned acceptance.” Do not choose anything. Require more transparency, accountability, dialogue, and explanation before any major decisions are made.