“Need Blind” Admissions In Trouble

Here’s a sign of colleges’ desperate need for tuition cash to make up for shrunken endowments and less generous donors in today’s economic downturn: many institutions are slinking away from their vaunted “need-blind” admissions policies that admits applicants deemed qualified regardless of their ability to pay and makes up any shortfalls with scholarships and other aid.
One of the first to announce a partial suspension of need-blind as the April college-acceptance season approached was Tufts University. Tufts, in Medford, Mass., is a highly selective private university, but as at most private universities, the costs of attending Tufts are steep: nearly $39,000 a year in undergraduate tuition alone. In years past, according to the Princeton Review, Tufts has lived up to its need-blind policy by giving some form of financial aid to 41 percent of its undergrads.
This year Tufts, also like many private universities affected by a recession-induced scramble by potential students and their parents to enroll in cheaper public or close-to-home institutions, suffered a drop in applications for its 2009-2010 entering freshman class (the decline was 4 percent in Tufts’ case), but it accepted nearly as many applicants as it did last year (the decline in acceptances was less than 1 percent, Tufts reported). That was one sign that Tufts was willing to relax its tough admissions standards, if only slightly, in the interest of maintaining its entering class size of about 1,300 students with its attendant cash flow. Then, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Lee Coffin told the Tufts Daily that the university’s admissions committee had jettisoned its need-blind policy in considering the final 850 applications—about 5 percent of the 15,038 total. Coffin told the daily that Tufts had simply run out of scholarship money. As might be expected, part of the reason for the change in policy was that applicants’ recession-strapped families were requesting larger amounts of aid. Nonetheless, Tufts’ concomitant willingness to dip farther down into its applicant pool in order to maintain the same number of entering freshmen as last year indicates that Tufts needs tuition dollars as much as some of its students need scholarships.


Given the lottery nature of the application/acceptance ratio at elite colleges, the entering freshman class at Tufts this coming fall is unlikely to be less academically qualified overall than classes of years past. Yet Tufts’s slight shift away from a strict need-blind policy is part of a nationwide trend toward bending need-blind rules to produce more students whose families can pay full costs. The New York Times reported that an array of well-regarded private colleges, including Bowdoin, Brandeis, Colby, Grinnell, Middlebury, and Oberlin, have found ways to get around need-blind. The typical strategy is to increase the number of transfer, foreign, and waiting-list students accepted, as applicants falling into those three categories have not traditionally been considered on a need-blind basis. Brandeis, for example, expanded by 10 percent the number of international students it will accept for this fall. Bowdoin announced that it will expand its undergrad population by 50 students over the next five years, with many of the new slots to be filled by transfer and wait-listed students.
It hasn’t taken long for college applicants, their parents, and the admissions-counseling industry to realize that, for families with the money to afford to pay full freight, these shifts in admissions policies gives them an advantage in the admissions game. As educational consultant David Kahn wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “[A]necdotally speaking , my students are being accepted this year at schools that might have turned them down a year ago. Just because some schools are ‘need blind’ doesn’t mean that they are ‘wealth blind.'” Admissions counselor Lauren Stuckey, writing for the Washington Examiner, bluntly advised college applicants from families with the wherewithal not to request financial aid: “[F]or those who can afford it, it might just make sense to forego the aid in favor of the proverbial fat envelope.”
It helps to put the partial abandonment of need-blind policies into historical perspective. Until 30 years ago, the availability of college scholarships was largely determined by colleges’ scholarship budgets. Universities doled out scholarships where they could to their best-qualified needy applicants, leaving the less academically qualified needy to fend for themselves. Then, in the interests of having greater numbers of less affluent students in their classes, colleges adopted need-blind policies, which essentially traded the scholarship budget for a scholarship bottomless pit. Now, it seems, none but the very richest universities can afford high-minded open-ended financial aid policies.that reward academically weaker applicants from poor families as well as academic superstars with similar backgrounds. Cash-strapped colleges are simply returning, via a variety of rule-bending strategies, to the careful scholarship budgeting of yesteryear.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

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