Wesleyan University President Michael Roth officially laid out plans in May to end Wesleyan’s policy of need-blind admission. He announced the change in a blog post entitled “Sustainable Affordability,” wherein President Roth presented a challenge: to keep Wesleyan affordable without compromising the quality of a Wesleyan education.
Roth’s concern was that the school’s then-current cost model – hiking student fees annually well above the rate of inflation, and then raising the financial aid budget – was both pricing out middle-class families (who make too much to qualify for scholarship but too little to manage an increasingly expensive tuition cost) and setting up a pattern that would not be sustainable. Increasing the school’s student fees 4.5% annually – as Roth said in his post that Wesleyan did from the past academic year to the present – would mean that Wesleyan’s cost of tuition would jump over $20,000 over the next 10 years from $45,358 in 2012-2013 to $67,406 in 2022-2023.
Roth, who has been Wesleyan’s president since 2007, proposed a three-pronged solution: to link Wesleyan’s tuition increases to the rate of inflation, to introduce a three-year degree option, and to revoke Wesleyan’s official label of a need-blind admission process. In his wording, Roth was careful to point out that Wesleyan already considers need in transfer and international student applications, and that the change would not affect most applications. President Roth seemed purposely vague when he outlined stipulations that Wesleyan “will read all applications without regard for the ability to pay, and we will be need-blind for as many students as possible. Currently we project this to be about 90% of each class (depending on the level of need).”
Need-blind admission is defined as a policy wherein a school does not consider an applicant’s financial profile while making his or her admissions decision. Who are the 10% that Roth is leaving out? Would they be the most needy – students who contribute greatly to the school’s socioeconomic diversity, as well as students who rely on financial aid the most – or students somewhere in the middle – students who might be able to pay for school with loans, but who are exactly the group that Roth is enacting this new need-aware policy in order to protect – or maybe the wealthiest students – students who would be given an prioritized position? Wesleyan accepts fewer than 20% of all applicants, and Roth projects that that percentage is shrinking, so to consider 10% of applicants differently from the rest makes a huge difference in the makeup of a class.
Wesleyan students have been very vocal about their opposition to Wesleyan’s need-aware change. This fall, Wesleyan’s Student Assembly put together a Student Budget Sustainability Task Force, which has met with the university president to discuss the school’s financial options. Wesleyan junior Ben Kafogalis, who is active in on-campus social issues says that he is “significantly concerned about the change. While I understand the economic reasons behind the decision, and support the idea that the change will actually help more lower income students attend Wesleyan by offering better financial aid packages than we have been able to, I worry what kind of philosophy we end up having. I worry that without pressure what has been called a temporary change could easily become permanent, and we could lose sight of education being a primary vehicle for social change and mobility, and that Wesleyan has a responsibility (and I would hope, a desire) to be a part of that change.”
Wesleyan is not the only liberal arts institution to make this change in recent years. Macalester College became need aware in 2006, Tufts University in 2009, and now Grinnell College is considering the change for this upcoming year. Grinnell College is an interesting example in that they have a high-profile commitment to bringing in students from low-income households, offering a $100,000 prize for innovators in social justice, and because Grinnell also has a huge endowment, unlike Wesleyan, whose unusually low endowment prompted the latter’s decision to end need-blind admission. In the excellent and very thorough FAQ from the President’s office on Grinnell’s website, their decision is profiled as one based on economic downturn and keeping the base price of tuition lower through cutting the amount of tuition that goes to financial aid.
With the cost of running a university increasing, and while families are still struggling to recover after the recession, requiring more financial aid, some institutions are struggling to juggle their commitments to both accessibility and quality. NYU practices need-blind admission, but as we all know does not guarantee to meet full need. Some see need-blind admission as a symbolic commitment to nondiscriminatory admissions policy, while others see it as a meaningless label that universities can hold up to show applicants and their families while prioritizing the wealthy and crushing students under unexpected debt. In either case, as university fees continue to climb we can look forward to an emerging conversation about who is responsible when college costs too much.