BOSTON — Many colleges say they want to diversify their campuses. They say they want more first-generation students, more from low-income families, more from underrepresented minority backgrounds.
But their financial aid policies often get in the way of those goals — or even undermine them.
That was Youlonda Copeland-Morgan’s point Friday as she delivered a hard-hitting talk to the National Association for College Admission Counseling on what she perceives as a mismatch between rhetoric and action as schools pledge to make their campuses more representative of the nation.
“We’ve got to stop doing things on the margins,” UCLA’s vice provost for enrollment management said. “If we want to see changes, we’ve got to be bold. … You’re not going to get the change you’re looking for doing these incremental things.”
Copeland-Morgan, who oversees the recruiting, admissions and financial aid operations for the University of California at Los Angeles, listed several problematic aid policies that either favor the rich or hinder the poor. And she challenged colleges to get rid of as many of them as possible during a panel discussion at the convention.
First, she called out “merit-based” awards that are based on testing. “That is not a proper use,” she said, of admission tests like the ACT or SAT or of aid dollars. “And you know the reason you do this, right?” She left unspoken what everyone in the audience knew: It’s about the chase for wealth and prestige.
Here were six other practices that Copeland-Morgan cited:
1) One-time scholarships. “They need four-year scholarships,” she said. “I would rather give a student $1,000 [a year] for four years than $4,000 for one year.”
2) Tying “merit” scholarships to grades they get in future years in college. The practice is particularly difficult when the required GPA for keeping the scholarship is higher than the campus average. “That puts too much stress on the students and keeps them from pursuing their passions,” she said, even choosing a major based on how “easy” they think it will be instead of the one that fits them best.
3) Requiring scholarship recipients to perform community service. Sometimes the commitment is five or 10 hours a week. Those hours can add up quickly if students are also holding a work-study job. “How are they going to focus on their academics?” Copeland-Morgan asked.
4) Using private loans and parent loans in financial aid offers and then claiming to students that their package will meet their “full need.” “That is not honest,” she said. “Students need to be able to make informed decisions.”
5) Asking for “unreasonably high” financial contributions from summer earnings. What about students from economically distressed neighborhoods or regions who may find it difficult to secure a decent summer job? The net result, she said: “By default, it really is another form of unmet need.”
6) Failing to consider financial aid holistically. Copeland-Morgan noted that colleges often pledge a “holistic” review of the individual circumstances of applicants, together with test scores and grades and essays, when deciding whether to offer them admission. So why do financial aid offices tend to stick to rigid formulas?
“Equity is not ‘treating everybody the same,’ ” she said. “Equity is giving every student what they need and deserve.” What about students from low-income families who have higher transportation costs than their peers? What about policies that ask students to increase their “self-help” contribution after freshman year? “If your self-help expectation requires that students take on two or three loans,” she said, “I challenge you to look at that.”
Small changes can make a big difference, she said. “In education, we’re kind of slow to move. We kind of get comfortable in our space. I would invite you to join all of your colleagues in trying to make a real difference in moving the needle.”
She said that the questions should be asked at all kinds of schools, including those with huge endowments. “This conversation is for you, too,” she said. “The question is, are you doing enough?”
UCLA has about 30,900 undergraduates. Thirty-five percent have enough need to qualify for federal Pell Grants, according to federal data, and 59 percent receive grants or scholarships. Copeland-Morgan said the university practices what she preaches. She got rid of one-time scholarships about five years ago, she said, and she advises potential donors not to put burdensome restrictions on financial aid gifts.