Become Need-Blind? For Colleges, That's the Wrong Question

Michael Morgenstern for the Chronicle

December 10, 2012

Among the most critical issues facing college leaders today are affordability, the nation's growing income gap, and the need for a diverse student population. Recent moves by several selective colleges regarding financial-aid policies, including need-blind admissions, have brought those issues to the fore.

For example, Wesleyan University recently announced that it would end its need-blind policy—accepting students whether or not they can afford to pay—because of the high cost to the university. Grinnell College, which also is need-blind, said it would review its financial-aid policies because the current ones are unsustainable.

At Vassar College, we returned to need-blind admissions in 2007, after a 10-year break, in an effort to increase the diversity of our student body. This policy change, along with the economic recession that followed, led to a significant increase in the share of our students receiving financial aid, as well as in our expenditures on financial aid.

The proportion of the freshman class receiving scholarships from the college increased from 46 percent in 2006 to 58 percent in 2012, and expenditures on financial aid doubled over the same period. The share of first-generation students and of Pell Grant recipients also increased significantly. First-generation college students account for 13 percent of the current freshman class, up from 9 percent in 2006, and the share of the freshman class receiving Pell Grants doubled, from 12 percent to 24 percent, in the five years following the change in the need-blind policy.

If Vassar had reached the same degree of socioeconomic diversity without returning to need-blind policies, or if other colleges accomplish similar levels of diversity through other policies, does the method matter? A need-blind college-admissions policy is both a principle and a means to an end. What may be more important to issues of access and affordability, however, is the attention paid to the ends rather than the principle.

There are about 4,500 institutions of higher education in the United States, with different cost structures, pricing strategies, degrees of selectivity, and levels of support for financial aid. As a result, these colleges also have very different ranges of socioeconomic diversity.

The small number of institutions that are need-blind and meet full need are primarily the highly selective, nonprofit colleges that recognized 30 to 40 years ago that their student bodies were too homogeneous. Those institutions, committed to equal opportunity, educating leaders for our society, and the belief that diversity benefits all students, moved to increase the diversity of their student bodies, adopting need-blind admissions as well as affirmative-action policies.

Those colleges also improved their connections with community-based organizations, and over time established partnerships with groups, such as the Posse Foundation and QuestBridge, that help low-income students attend college. They worked to reach new audiences of talented, underserved youth.

Along the way, they learned a great deal about successfully educating low-income and ethnically diverse student bodies. Vassar's most recent graduation rates for African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic-American students all equal or exceed those for the student body over all.

Need-blind admissions policies were developed in part as a marketing tool, not just as a principle to guide admissions decisions. If high-school students from diverse backgrounds, for whatever reason, don't apply, then a college's admissions policies can't change its student demographics. And concerns about high sticker prices and incomplete information about financial aid result in low-income students and students of color shying away from the selective private institutions. Need-blind admission policies are therefore also meant to change applicant pools, not just admissions decisions.

The message that colleges don't take income into account when making admissions decisions, and that they meet full financial need, is meant to attract students who otherwise would not be in the applicant pool. But colleges have had varying degrees of success with need-blind policies, for a number of unrelated reasons, including individual colleges' history, location, and level of selectivity.

Isolated rural colleges, for example, can have more difficulty recruiting a diverse student body from urban areas. And the most selective institutions may have to work a little harder given the correlation between income and academic achievement as measured by such things as standardized-test scores. If one were to take a list of the top liberal-arts colleges and then review measures of socioeconomic diversity, many institutions that are not need-blind would look better than those that are.

Colleges should be evaluated by their commitment to access as evidenced by the resources they commit to it and the diversity of their student bodies, given their overall level of financial resources. Taking selectivity into account, look at what share of the student population receives financial aid and/or Pell Grants compared with the national pool of equally talented high-school graduates planning to go to college. Look at how much the college spends on financial aid and how many of its students are first-generation, compared with what one would expect given its level of selectivity.

Look beyond a need-blind, need-aware, or need-sensitive label to get to the heart of the matter. Is the college committing resources to a socioeconomically diverse student body? Or just talking about it?

Catharine Hill is president of Vassar College.