Budgetary constraints and debates about tuition costs are not Wesleyan-specific. As the campus discusses the new need-aware admissions policy, community members are examining how other colleges are dealing with tightening economic constraints. When considering how liberal arts schools similar to Wesleyan are approaching the issue of financial need in admissions, one especially compelling place to look is Davidson College in North Carolina.
Since 2007, Davidson has pledged to maintain a loan-free financial aid system for its students and has paired this with a strict need-blind admissions policy. This initiative, called the Davidson Trust, aims to make the school both accessible to and affordable for students from all financial backgrounds. Davidson was the first liberal arts college in the nation to establish this type of program.
According to the Davidson College website, the enactment of the Davidson Trust “strengthens the academic experience of all Davidson students by expanding the type of perspectives voiced in the classroom. And it allows Davidson graduates to make career and life choices motivated by interest and passion, rather than financial compensation.”
Under the policy, students and their families can still take out loans if they choose to, as a matter of personal financing. However, standard financial aid packages from Davidson consist only of grants and work-study.
In a press release from when the Davidson Trust was first announced, members of Davidson’s Board of Trustees emphasized that eliminating loans and maintaining need-blind admissions were among Davidson’s top priorities. They also assured the community that the initiative wouldn’t come at a cost to other components of campus life.
The Davidson website states, “When the college trustees enacted the Trust, they pledged that its no-loan component would not be funded by tuition increases or cuts in academic programming, and that remains the pledge.”
In accordance with this pledge, the Davidson Trust is separate from Davidson’s Living Endowment, a fund that is expended yearly toward academic resources, merit-based scholarships, and faculty salaries. Both the Trust and the Living Endowment derive from donations to the Annual Fund.
As of June 2011, Davidson College had a total endowment of about $509 million (Wesleyan’s endowment is around $600 million). Davidson draws from its endowment for its financial aid program, but annual donations are currently helping to sustain the policies of the Davidson Trust.
A representative from Davidson’s Office of Financial Aid explained, “While the college is looking to endow the money needed to fully support this initiative, family and friends of Davidson have committed to supporting The Davidson Trust through expendable monies that will bridge the gap until the endowment is fully funded.”
While Davidson and Wesleyan have similar endowments, Davidson’s undergraduate population is just under two-thirds the size of Wesleyan’s (about 1750 students to Wesleyan’s 2800). Therefore, although both schools pledge to meet the full financial need of their admitted students, Wesleyan does not have the resources to replace all of its student loans with grants, as Davidson has done. Additionally, each school has handled its finances differently in recent decades, and each campus’ infrastructure has required specific renovations.
Despite this difference, the Davidson Trust merits consideration as a model for seeking out and supporting students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. A statement from Davidson’s financial aid office echoes the sentiments of need-blind proponents at Wesleyan:
“Need-blind allows for all students to be judged solely on their merit, what they have accomplished, what they stand for, and how they would add to a college community, and it allows for that judgment to be made independent of their ability to afford the full cost of attendance.”