Let’s be clear: ending need-blind explicitly discriminates against the poor and middle class.
In a forum on Sept. 24 with President Michael Roth, Benny Docter ’14 labeled the administration’s plan to take ability to pay into account while admitting students as “actively discriminating against poor people in the admissions process.” Roth responded by incredulously denying that he’d made such a statement and added, “That’s a lovely way of putting it.” Unfortunately, the core of what Docter said—that the new plan does a major disservice to anyone unlucky enough not to be on top of the economic heap—is true.
It should be central to any discussion and debate concerning need-blind admissions that, by manipulating the admissions process in order to increase revenue, our administrators will be discriminating against the working and middle classes in favor of those families fortunate enough (by the administration’s standards) to be able to pay full tuition. Furthermore, administrators must do so in order to “succeed;” if increasingly wealthy families are not selected, then increasing reliance on students and their families for revenue will fail. This proposal degrades the diverse character of the University and contributes to the harmful trend of rising inequality in the United States and around the world. Administrators have cited between 10 percent and 20 percent as an expectation for the portion of the class to be admitted “need aware.” The University has received over 10,000 applications each of the last three years; given this projection, we can expect 1000 to 2000 applicants for the class of 2017 to be accepted because their parents can pay full tuition, which is neither just nor necessary. In fact, the number will likely be higher—Wesleyan already admits international and transfer applicants while considering their ability to pay.
This kind of discrimination negatively affects the world in which we live. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Chrystia Freeland identified universities as contributing to “the growing social and, especially, educational chasm between those at the top and everyone else.” Freeland writes: “Educational attainment, which created the American middle class, is no longer rising. The super-elite lavishes unlimited resources on its children, while public schools are starved of funding. […] An elite education is increasingly available only to those already at the top.” Freeland and many others have described how socioeconomic inequality threatens the welfare of all members of society. This is the trend that Wesleyan will be actively supporting if it attempts to address its financial situation by increasingly viewing students and their families as a means to an end—endowment growth—instead of ends in and of themselves.
It’s also important to note that though this “need-aware” policy constitutes explicit socioeconomic bias against the working and middle classes, the “need-blind” policy has been part of a recent trend in which the proportion of Wesleyan’s working and middle class families decreased over the last decade. According to Professor of Economics Gil Skillman, “the percentage of students coming from middle-income families has fallen by almost 30 percent (and from low-income families by around 15 percent).” So while the plan President Roth and the Board of Trustees are proposing is certainly regressive, there should be no illusions that a return to the status quo of recent years is in any way progressive. A serious, transparent investigation that includes larger numbers of students, faculty, and staff needs to be made if the University wants to craft an admissions policy and financial model that embodies the “practical idealism” referenced in Wesleyan’s mission statement. Following through with the current plan to scale back need-blind admissions is a clear step backward in this dimension but a certain step forward for widening the gap between rich and poor (and sending those in the middle to the bottom).
A liberal arts education is a wonderful thing. Restricting this education to an increasingly privileged elite is not.