Colleges lead with need-blind admissions

A closer look at diversity goals and other factors driving need-blind admissions
By: | Issue: July, 2016
June 22, 2016

When the economy tanked in 2009, the trustees of Hamilton College in upstate New York made a major investment in the future of admissions practices—they shifted from need-sensitive to need-blind admissions, while remaining a school that promises to meet full need.

The trustees of the 1,850-student liberal arts college provided bridge funding of five $500,000 pledges to allow for the change to happen immediately, and the school raised $40 million within a year to make up the difference needed for additional financial aid.

“It’s not just about being need-blind,” says Monica Inzer, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid. “It’s a way to put a stake in the ground on what this college has always valued and been proud of—a stronger, more diverse student body.”

And need-blind admissions has resulted in just that. In 2003, 13 percent of the students were non-white, and 12 years later in 2015, 25 percent reported the same. “We should be more diverse. The world is more diverse,” says Inzer.

The answers to the following three common questions about need-blind policies sheds light on why they’ve been adopted at Hamilton and other institutions, whether they work and whether otherenrollment diversity initiatives can be just as effective.

Is need-blind truly need-blind?

Need-blind institutions claim they review the financial side of the equation only after a student has been accepted based on GPA, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, interviews and other factors.

Yet, some are skeptical about the ability for any school to be need-blind, because anyone viewing an application can surmise financial need without reading a student’s FAFSA form.

“You can see needs on every line of a student’s application—from the zip code of where they live, to the high school they attended, what their parents do for a living, the essay and the recommendations,” says Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University in Chicago.

This doesn’t mean a need-blind school uses that knowledge in their admission process, but Boeckenstedt says there is potential to do exactly that.

His university, considered one of the most diverse schools in the country, uses need-sensitive admissions, where they consider the financial need of a student as they review the application.

Need-blind admissions simply can’t achieve the goal of putting every applicant on a level playing field because economic status has impacted students and their grades before they ever apply to college, says Mark Kantrowitz, an expert on student financial aid, scholarships and student loans.

“For example, a wealthy kid can afford to pay a few hundred bucks for an SAT prep class; a needy kid can’t,” says Kantrowitz, who has been analyzing financial aid for more than three decades. And legacy admissions practices, while not explicitly targeting the wealthy, can nevertheless benefit wealthy students disproportionately.

Coming from a low-income background can be an advantage at institutions offering both need-blind admissions and full-need financial aid.

At Bowdoin College in Maine, admissions officers think about ways they can provide opportunities to students who are generally without opportunities, says Scott Meiklejohn, dean of admissions and financial aid. While some family information can indeed generate conclusions about an applicant’s financial need, the amount of assistance is never considered until Bowdoin accepts a student, Meiklejohn says.

“Sometimes you are tilting deliberately toward someone who doesn’t have a lot of advantage,” he says. “Maybe they are the first in the family who will go to college.”

Even at need-blind schools, financial need may come into play when students are selected from waitlists, Boeckenstedt says. “Students who are accepted from the waitlist often have no financial need whatsoever,” says Boeckenstedt.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators finds that schools want to admit high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds. “There has been a lot of pressure on schools,” says Justin Draeger, NASFAA’s president. “They are after a diverse student body.”

Inzer says some of the concern about need-blind being impossible to achieve is reasonable—she even agreed with much of it before Hamilton switched. “It’s true we know a lot about their backgrounds and schools in their application, but the difference in the admissions process with need-blind is staggering.”

During the time that Hamilton was need-sensitive, each incoming class had a limited budget. When the money was gone, so were the seats for those needing financial assistance. At the end of the process, administrators would pull out financially needy admits and replace them with students not slated to be admitted and not applying for financial aid. Need-blind has corrected that process.

Inzer still has to budget for financial aid, but if one year’s class comes in over budget in financial-aid need, Hamilton may eliminate assistance for transfers and international students. And the school’s nearly $1 billion endowment also helps cover costs.

“If we spend more than ever year after year, then we would have to question the practice,” she says. “Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet.”

Do need-blind practices require large endowments?

Colleges and universities offering need-blind admissions generally have two assets in common—high tuition and large endowments. The average tuition at most need-blind schools falls between $50,000 and $60,000 per year, and endowments run into the billions. “You need a significant amount of institutional fundsto make it possible,” says Draeger of NASFAA.

“If you are a tuition-dependent institution, it is hard to project the budget for the next year if you aren’t taking into account any modeling on how much financial aid you can award.”

Right now, while there’s no authoritative source on the number of colleges and universities that officially describe themselves as both need-blind and as meeting full need, it’s a small segment of the higher ed universe. Some institutions consider themselves need-blind but don’t necessarily meet full need.

Amherst College is one of the former. “I don’t have a budget—I just determine the eligibility and we meet their needs in full,” says Gail Holt, dean of financial aid. The college’s $2 billion endowment not only provides the financial resources essential to become need-blind, but also allows the practice to continue during downturns in the economy.

Despite the large endowment and heavy promotion of the school’s need-blind policies, sticker shock can still scare off low-income high achievers, says Holt. “I’m amazed that students only see the $70,000 number for tuition and decide not to apply.”

Applicants with significant concerns about financial aid are directed to Amherst’s online net price calculator to see their likely aid award.

Bowdoin College allots $33 million annually from its $1.4 billion endowment to fund financial aid, including a work-study program—an effort to encourage students to be more invested in their education.

As institutions promote need-blind policies, it is becoming an attractive recruiting and fundraising tool for many schools. The practice gets noted in promotional materials and conversations—and prospective donors and students pay attention.

Hamilton officials say its need-blind status, for example, helped in raising $40 million in 2009 to support the admissions policy.

And need-blind can succeed in attracting the desired high-achieving, low-income student. “When I describe our program—need-blind, no loans, full need [met]—that sends a message to parents who can or can’t pay that everyone is accepted based on their prospects and talents,” says Meiklejohn at Bowdoin.

What alternatives to need-blind admissions can also increase diversity?

Some full-need schools, like Bowdoin, have eliminated loans, though other institutions still package them with financial aid. This remains a hurdle for low-income students who fear running up large debts.

In addition, making low-income students work as part of their financial aid package sends a message that they are not on the same playing field as their wealthier peers, Kantrowitz says.

He proposes a series of measure: lower the cost of tuition; create a mission of educating low-income students (which includes establishing a quote for the number the school enrolls); and define “affordable debt” (that is, the maximum amount a student can afford to borrow), and then track what type of student graduates with that manageable amount of debt.

Bowdoin, Amherst and Hamilton all report that nearly half of their students receive financial aid, with the average package totaling more than $40,000.

But it’s not just about tuition aid. Amherst College also covers medical insurance for students who can’t afford it. And Hamilton works to ensure its financial aid has an impact after graduation—covering students’ travel and clothing expenses for job interviews, for example.

As Inzer says, “Giving people financial aid is one thing, and supporting them after they are here four years is another thing.”

Acting on need-blind

Examples of fluid decision-making within financial aid policy

  • 2016: Case Western Reserve University (Ohio), currently need-blind, discussesbecoming need-aware instead.
  • 2015: Dartmouth College drops need-blind for international students.
  • 2012: Wesleyan University (Conn.) ends practice of being fully need-blind on admissions, moving to being “only as need-blind as we can afford to be.”
  • 2010: Hamilton College (N.Y.) moves from need-sensitive to need-blind.
  • 2008: Amherst College (Mass.) extends need-blind admission to all applicants, including internationals.
  • 2007: Vassar College (N.Y.) returns to need-blind admissions for U.S. students, after a decade of the ability to pay playing a “limited role” in admissions.
  • 1993: Carleton College (Minn.) goes from need-blind to need-aware.

Kate West is a journalist who teaches courses on reporting and television producing at The University of Texas at Austin.