Michael Roth generated considerable controversy in 2012 by taking the University away from a need-blind admissions policy, citing financial pressures and the unsustainable nature of the program. At the time of the decision, Wesleyan’s endowment lagged behind fellow NESCAC schools at $589 million. Compare that with Little Three rivals Williams and Amherst, who both boasted endowments of over $1.6 billion (both are now well over $2 billion). The student body reacted angrily to the choice of the administration, with multiple protests and petitions. Often in classes I hear similar sentiments echoed by my peers. Although efforts to go full need-blind are well-intended, they are ignorant of reality for low-income students, and impractical for a University that needs money to function.
When the average person thinks of need-blind, they imagine an admissions office reviewing their application with no idea of the person’s financial situation. This concept is a fantasy. An average application reviewer can make basic inferences about a person’s financial situation from what is on an application. Let’s say Applicant A lists their interests to be Shakespearean poetry and volunteer work in three different continents. Applicant A also achieved a near perfect SAT score, went to an elite prep school, and took an unpaid internship at the U.S. Senate. Applicant B enjoys hiking, school soccer, and works as a busboy at a local restaurant. Applicant B chooses not submit test scores, but took a challenging course load. Of these two hypotheticals, there is a strong suggestion which one had greater access to economic certainty and opportunity. If these were compared in a need-blind setting, one would be hard-pressed to select Applicant B. However, if an admissions officer can see that Applicant B comes from a low-income, working class background, it would change the way that application is viewed. No one expects someone who works to pay for college to have the time or money to volunteer abroad, pay for personal SAT tutoring, or take on unpaid internships. Being need-aware allows admissions to compare candidates achievements with a sense of how their economic backgrounds influence their applications.
Despite Roth’s shortcomings in hiring decisions, commencement speakers, and website design, his understanding of fundraising is impressive. Wesleyan’s “THIS IS WHY” campaign raised $482 million, despite kicking off before the Great Recession. Though the leadership of the campaign was a joint effort from various board members, Roth oversaw the largest growth in endowment in the history of the University. Of the $482 million raised, $274 million went to financial aid usage. Those who argue a Wesleyan education is unaffordable to low-income groups are usually unaware of the funds available to these students.
The claim that higher education institutions should not be concerned about the wealth of an incoming class is an unrealistic idea by those in favor of need-blind. Wesleyan’s status as a non-profit does not mean it can operate without a revenue stream. Imagine a situation where the Class of 2023 has an exceptionally high number of low-income students apply and get in through a need-blind process. This policy could result in a disproportionate number of low-income students which could negatively affect Wesleyan’s budget. Ideally, a need-aware policy permits the University to round out an accepted class with a healthy balance of income levels and ensure that low-income students can be sufficiently funded by wealthier accepted students. The reality of private institutions is simple. They are not charities. Yes, they should accept and fund as many low-income students as possible, but students with high levels of wealth are needed to ensure that students that are relatively less well off can still attend these top institutions.
Finally, detractors complain of the psychological effect that need-aware admissions will have on prospective low-income high school students. Of all the claims, this one tops the list as the most condescending and neglectful of reality. The argument goes something like this: “If high schoolers find out that admissions officers know their economic status, they will be less inclined to apply for fear of rejection of their application.” This argument ignores the many useful tools available to students applying for financial aid. For example, Wesleyan, like many of its peer institutions, provides an online calculator where one can see the net cost for a year at the University. For many low-income students the out of pocket cost for a Wesleyan degree is minimal. Further, Wes commits to meeting 100 percent of demonstrated financial need. While even a minimal cost can still be a challenge, the long run payoff of a degree from a top school far outweighs the small loans that low-income students might have to take out.
Ideally, Wesleyan would have endowment in the billions, and such calls for a fully need-blind policy might be warranted. If our endowment were astronomical, there would be no worry about having too many low-income students in one class, and student loans would be unnecessary. But Wesleyan is not one of the seven institutions in the United States that is need-blind and meets full demonstrated need (Amherst, Curtis Institute of Music, Harvard College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Minerva Schools at KGI, Princeton University, Yale University). Until the endowment and budget at Wesleyan reach a sustainable balance, the combination of affordability and need-blind admissions is nothing more than an uninformed policy dream.
Jack Leger is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.