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Viewpoint: Why ‘need-blind’ is the wrong goal for college admissions

Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. (Courtesy of Williams College)

Prominent colleges are debating how to recruit and enroll more students from low-income families. That led recently to the emergence of a coalition of more than 80 big-name schools that wants to create a new application process with a stated goal of finding disadvantaged students with academic talent.

Williams College, a prestigious private liberal arts school in Massachusetts, is a member of the coalition. The share of students at Williams with enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants is 18 percent. That is well under the typical Pell-eligible share at public colleges and universities. But it exceeds the share found at many other elite private schools. Williams President Adam F. Falk, in office since 2010, argues here for a new way of thinking about recruiting those in financial need. It’s about vision, he says, not blindness.    

By Adam F. Falk

“Need-blindness” is almost universally perceived as the key indicator of a good — even virtuous — admission policy. After all, a college that has a we-don’t-see-need approach to admission doesn’t consider students’ ability to pay when deciding whether to admit them. And certainly, schools that practice need-blind admission are deeply committed to providing access and opportunity to qualified students from all economic backgrounds.

But “need-blindness,” taken literally, is actually a narrow and misleading construct. There’s a passiveness to the term that implies, quite wrongly, that we can address the issue of college accessibility simply by turning a blind eye to students’ financial circumstances. Rather, what’s needed is for colleges to act affirmatively to bring socioeconomic diversity to our campuses. Just as being “color-blind” won’t eliminate racism in our society, being narrowly “need-blind” isn’t nearly enough to ensure college access and affordability.

In fact, Williams and a handful of other places aren’t need-blind, at least not in the superficial way that many understand the term. There’s no question that a student will never be denied admission to Williams because of an inability to pay tuition. But we do consider students’ financial circumstances in the admission process, by actively seeking high-achieving, low-income students. For many years we’ve put considerable effort and lots of money into that search, and we’ve recently intensified the work and seen significant results in our ability to recruit low-income students.

We’re providing all-expenses-paid visits to about 350 high-achieving, low-income prospective and admitted students this year (up more than 50 percent since 2013), and we’ve tripled (from 100 to 300) the number of one-on-one college advising-focused phone conversations offered for others. We’ve instituted and already expanded a pilot program that pairs low-income students with Williams alumni to help demystify the college application process, providing mentoring and support to more than 400 such prospective and admitted students.

We also provide programming and funding for about 30 community-based organization visits to campus, and we partner with several national organizations focused on college access for first-generation and/or low-income students, including I’m First, National Partnership for Educational Access, Say Yes to Education, QuestBridge, and, as of this fall, College Greenlight. And this month, we launched a simplified financial aid calculator to help students and families look beyond the sticker price and understand how affordable a Williams education really is.

As for the results: More than 20 percent of students in the Class of 2019 have family incomes below the U.S. median, up from about 15 percent the year before. Half of the class receives financial aid from the college, and their median family income is just under $77,000, compared to $92,000 last year.

It follows that the amount of financial aid we’re providing has gone up considerably. The average grant for the Class of 2019 is $50,000, up from $44,000 last year. Some of the increase compensates for the modest rise in our comprehensive fee from last year, but not all of it: The average amount that parents of aided students are being asked to bring to the table this year is $12,657, down $3,000 from the year before. And the average loan amount is down, too, now about $1,500 (students from families with typical assets and incomes of $75,000 or less aren’t expected to take out any loans).

All of this as the class is more diverse than ever, and as full of interesting, talented, and high-achieving students as it’s ever been. We’re proud of such success and gratified by the campus community that results.

So, “need-blind” doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s not accurate, and what’s more, it’s not the virtue that it might seem. If a college opens its doors to low-income students but doesn’t do everything it can to find those students and enroll them, how real is that promise? And if a college is need-blind but then doesn’t meet a student’s full financial need, what’s the point? That education is still out of reach. Only about four dozen American colleges and universities that are need-blind or more — aggressively need-seeking — also meet students’ full need. Williams is one of them.

At Williams, we see need. And we aim to meet it head on.