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Should colleges consider financial aid in admissions decisions?

Students in Kogan Plaza on the campus of George Washington University. (Photograph by Mary F. Calvert) Students in Kogan Plaza on the campus of George Washington University.
(Photograph by Mary F. Calvert)

George Washington University’s student newspaper The Hatchet this week reported that the school had for years claimed to be “need-blind” when considering applications — meaning that they didn’t take into account a prospective student’s ability to pay without financial aid — when in fact  it did consider financial need. A university official issued a statement of apology Tuesday for what she described as a lapse in communications about admissions policies. Here’s a piece on this and the subject of “need-aware” vs. “need-blind” admissions at colleges and universities. It was written by Jim Jump, who started the Ethical College Admissions blog, where this appeared. Jump is academic dean and director of guidance at the private St. Christopher’s School  in Richmond, Va., and a former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

By Jim Jump

Legend has it that George Washington (the president, not the university) could not tell a lie.  That legend dates back to his reputedly owning up to chopping down a cherry tree with a hatchet.

I learned at an early age not to question that “truth.”  In elementary school I wrote a poem, intended to be humorous, about George Washington (the president, not the university) and the aforementioned cherry tree.  I wrote it from the point of view of a boyhood chum of George Washington (the president, not the university) who was an eyewitness to the demise of the cherry tree.  In the final stanza of the poem the future president is asked about chopping down the tree and responds by pointing at the narrator, “He did it.”

The poem was selected for the school literary magazine, perhaps my first ever published piece.  When the magazine came out, I was shocked to see that the final line of the poem now read, “I did it,” which not only removed any hint of whimsy and irony, but changed the entire meaning of the poem.  Upon further investigation, it turned out that I was a victim of censorship.  In typing the copy for the literary magazine, the school secretary took it upon herself to change the line so as not to sully the reputation of the father of our country.  For all I know I may have an FBI file based on having written that poem.

On Monday we learned that George Washington (the university, not the president) apparently been lying for years about being need-blind in admission.

That revelation came in a story in the ironically named independent student newspaper The Hatchet.  In the article, Laurie Koehler, the university’s new senior associate provost for enrollment management, described the university’s policy as need-aware and acknowledged that was not a change in policy.  That raised eyebrows, because for years (and in fact up until Saturday night) GW had claimed to be need-blind.

There is an old saying in higher education that any publicity is good publicity.  George Washington (the university, not the president) may be about to find out how true that is. This is the second time in the past year that GW had gotten negative admissions-related publicity.  Last November, U.S. News and World Report moved GW into the “Unranked” category after learning that GW had misreported class rank data for entering students.  That story resulted in Koehler’s predecessor retiring last December.

I have written about the ethics of need-blind admission previously.  Nearly twenty years ago my first article for the Journal of College Admission was on that topic, and one of my first blog posts last year dealt with need-blind admission.  Here are a couple of quick thoughts about George Washington (the university, not the president) and about need-blind/need-aware.

The positive outcome of this story is that GW is now being transparent about its practices.  When the National Association for College Admission Counseling Assembly first debated the need-blind issue twenty years ago in Pittsburgh, I argued that transparency was the most important and relevant ethical principle, and I continue to believe that.  The cynical part of my being (which friends and colleagues would say is a pretty big part) says that it is easy to come clean when you can place the blame for misrepresentation on your predecessor, and I also wonder about the fact that until sometime this past weekend the GW website apparently was still using language indicating that it was need-blind.  Be that as it may, what’s important is that GW is now accurately reflecting what it does.

It is important to stipulate that there is nothing inherently wrong with need-aware admission, especially when practiced at the margin.  Need-blind admission is an ideal that very few institutions can realistically achieve.  Good ethical principles and policies should balance ideals and reality, and the reality is that higher education is at some level a business (I hope it’s more than that), with revenue and expenses a concern.

That doesn’t mean that all need-aware admission practices are equally defensible.  Giving an opportunity to a student with low or no need is more defensible (assuming the student is reasonably capable of being successful) than denying opportunity to a student because they have financial need.      

Twenty-five years ago need-blind admission was understood to incorporate two different principles.  One was that admission decisions should be made without regard to financial need.  The other was that institutions should meet the full need of every student.  I see an ethical difference between the two.  In ethics there is a distinction between acts that are obligatory/ethical duties and those that go beyond the call of duty.  I consider making admission decisions based on qualifications an ethical obligation, while providing funding morally praiseworthy but beyond the call of duty.  I appreciate the argument that says that providing opportunity without adequate financial resources is cruel, but denying opportunity altogether is worse.  One is unpleasant, the other unethical.  What is worse than either of those is denying opportunity to protect stats like admit rate and yield.

What is wrong in the GW case is not being need-aware, but pretending to be need-blind.  I can only guess that’s because need-blind is seen as being prestigious.  Doing things for prestige reasons is usually a bad idea.  I remember a college adding an essay to its application years ago and admitting that it had no intention of reading the essays, but thought that having an essay would make it appear more prestigious.  Just recounting that makes my blood all over again.  A good rule of thumb is that if you’re embarrassed or hesitant to “preach what you practice,” that might be telling you something.

Finally, the need-blind issue is a great example of the changing admissions landscape.  Usually the term “changing admissions landscape” implies an erosion of ethical standards, but I don’t think that’s the case here.  The financial realities of higher education require us to rethink what is important and why.  The enduring values here are honesty and transparency, and whenever any of us fail to live those values, it hurts all of us.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · October 25, 2013

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