Wesleyan walks away from blind politics, citing financial and ethical concerns

Sometimes good intentions can blind the realities that something might not be sustainable.

In the face of financial pressures, Wesleyan University is moving away from its general policy of blind admissions to need. Instead, the college plans to tie increases in the size of its financial aid budget to the size of its overall budget. As long as this money meets needs, it will accommodate students regardless of their ability to pay. Once aid runs out, however, the college will begin to factor in family income and ability to pay. This effectively means that unless the college can raise enough money, the last students admitted to the class each year (maybe 10 percent of the class) will not include those who need help.

At a time when the burden of student debt is on everyone’s mind – reaching President Obama’s speeches and the front page of The New York Times – Wesleyan’s actions raise the question of a college’s admissions responsibility, particularly whether it should admit students even if the institution cannot meet their financial needs, forcing those who choose to register to take on a heavy debt burden. Wesleyan President Michael Roth said there was a moral argument for a college like his not to accept students if they cannot meet their needs, and not to compromise on quality in the name of l ‘access.

“I am prepared to ditch the label of need blindness in favor of giving the students who are here the best chance for success,” said Roth. “Our job is not to wear a badge of moral purity. Our job is to provide the best chances for success for the students we graduate.

Until now, Wesleyan has been one of a small minority of private institutions that both admit students regardless of financial need and are committed to fully meeting the needs of those admitted. While this policy is seen as financially impractical or impossible for most private colleges, it has generally been adopted by the more elite private colleges, a group that includes Wesleyan and his competitors.

Financial constraints

The change in admissions policy is part of a larger financial change Roth is attempting to make during his tenure as president, to put the institution on a more sustainable path and simultaneously try to control costs for them. families.

Since taking office in 2007, Roth has canceled two capital projects that would have cost the institution around $ 200 million and made cuts to non-academic staff which, combined with other efficiency measures and some revenue increases, resulted in annual savings of approximately $ 30 million. Some of this was done before the recession, although much of it was in reaction to it.

The savings are meant to allow the university to put more money into the college’s endowment, which is significantly lower than that of its peers. It was valued at around $ 589 million at the end of fiscal 2011, while those at Middlebury and Bowdoin colleges, for example, both exceeded $ 900 million. Williams and Amherst Colleges have endowments of over $ 1.6 billion.

To increase the endowment, however, the college must increase the money it collects from alumni and other private donation sources each year and invest it in the endowment, rather than spending it on operations. The university spent nearly 75% of the money it raised each year raising funds for operations when Roth arrived on campus. This year, about 60% of funds raised went to the endowment, and Roth said the college had a goal of about 75% of funds raised each year for the endowment.

But the college needs to earn enough from the net tuition fees – its other main source of income – to cover the change in fundraising strategy without sacrificing quality. While many colleges would simply increase tuition fees by a few more percentage points, Roth said that was not an option for Wesleyan. The college’s tuition and full tuition fees – nearly $ 60,000 a year – are already higher than its competitors, and Roth said continued high tuition fee increases could put it out of business. reach for many potential students. To help keep costs down, Roth said future tuition fee increases would be indexed to the rate of inflation.

The college is also working to reduce the cost of a degree. Middle School made the headlines last week, when it announced a structured three-year diploma program, an unusual step for a residential liberal arts college.

The kind of education that Wesleyan offers is expensive. Three-quarters of its classes have 20 students or less, and they’re taught by highly qualified academics who don’t come cheap. It has a beautiful residential campus that includes and amenities that students expect from a top-notch institution. And Roth said he wasn’t ready to sacrifice anything to make the end result. “It would be unwise to maintain this commitment if it meant that we had to reduce the quality of education they want to access,” he said.

All of this led to the proposed change in college financial aid policy, which could end up being a controversial move. It should be noted that the administration announced the potential policy change a week after the start, with most of the students away from campus.

Reduce the gap

The prevailing view among higher education institutions and the general public is that a family’s financial situation should not be a factor in the college admission process.

“If higher education is meant to be a vehicle for social mobility, and the goal is to train the next generation of leaders, and we believe leaders should come from all specters of the social class, then there is has a strong case for doing it, ”said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, professor of industrial and labor relations and economics at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. Ehrenberg also sits on the board of trustees of the State University of New York.

A 2008 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling and written by Donald Heller, now Dean of Michigan State University College of Education, found that 93% of public institutions and 81% of private institutions said they were totally blind to need. Another 6 percent of private people said they were blind to need until May 1, when they took into account the financial situation of students dropping off the waiting list.

The flip side of blind-to-need admissions is a college’s ability and commitment to “meet all needs” – that is, through a combination of scholarships, grants, and support. a reasonable amount of loans, to cover the needs demonstrated by the students according to their families. economic circumstances. And on this metric, only 32 percent of public institutions and 18 percent of private institutions reported meeting all demonstrated student needs. The result is that most colleges admit students, tell them attendance costs X, and provide less than X in aid. The theory behind such policies is that some students may really be willing to borrow a lot of money, or may find a generous grandparent or family friend – people whose wealth does not factor in eligibility. help – and find a way to pay.

Being blind to need and meeting all needs is considered the gold standard of college admissions, as it removes a family’s economic position from college decision, and a few dozen institutions among the largest in the country – usually those with large endowments. , including Harvard and Yale universities – have both policies in place.

Wesleyan agrees to meet all needs, but over the years he has gradually increased the amount students have to finance with loans. Roth said the college reduced the required loan amount by a third in 2008 and eliminated loans for the most needy students.

The ethical argument made by Roth and a handful of other private university administrators is that the blind admissions process is ideal, but may not be realistic for all colleges or students they want. admit. And while colleges can’t meet all needs without high loan expectations, say Roth and others, they shouldn’t be enticing students to come by accepting them.

Whether the public accepts this argument is another question.

“If the number of Pell Grant students goes down, there’s a good chance they’ll be hammered away by society as a whole,” Ehrenberg said. “It’s a tough position if you’re president. You need to strike a balance between what is ethical to do and is the same as meeting the demands of external constituents. What is the social obligation? “

Ehrenberg said there are alternative solutions to the ethical dilemma of blind admissions to need, such as not basing admission decisions on financial need, but advising students on the dangers of taking out excessive loans, potentially deterring them from enroll in institutions that would require such burdens.

Roth said the college’s goal is to raise enough money to become blind to need again. He estimated that only about 10% of college admissions decisions next year will factor in need as a factor, assuming donations stay at current levels.

“The point is really to spend more money on scholarships, not to accommodate need,” he said. “We want to choose people regardless of their ability to pay.”

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