George Washington U. Now Admits It Considers Financial Need in Admissions

October 22, 2013

As recently as Friday, George Washington University claimed to evaluate applicants without considering their financial need—to be need-blind, as the policy is known. "Requests for financial aid do not affect admissions decisions," a university Web page said.

But now, George Washington is explaining its approach quite differently, as first reported by The GW Hatchet, an independent student newspaper.

While applications are first reviewed without consideration of need, "at the point of finalizing admissions decisions, we must balance a student's financial resources with the university's aid budget," the Web site now reads. "This practice of being need-aware allows us to meet as much need of as many students as possible." A lengthy Q&A also now appears online.

The university changed its description of the admissions policy after the Hatchet interviewed Laurie Koehler, George Washington's new senior associate provost for enrollment management, on Friday, according to Jeremy Diamond, an assistant news editor, who conducted the interview. Ms. Koehler, who started in July, told Mr. Diamond that she would characterize the university's policy as need-aware, he said.

Need-aware admissions tends to work similarly from college to college. For the most-desired applicants—perhaps the bulk of the admitted class—an institution will not look at financial need. But before it decides on some final percentage of the class, the financial-aid budget comes into play. If the budget is running out of money, students with higher need who would otherwise have been admitted are put on a waiting list or denied. Those who can pay more are admitted in their place.

At first, the student reporters at George Washington thought the university must have changed its policy some time ago without updating its communications, Mr. Diamond said. But officials told him that this had been the policy for as long as anyone could remember. "It's a question of misrepresentation," Mr. Diamond said.

In a written statement on Monday afternoon, Ms. Koehler confirmed that only the description of the policy had shifted. "The university's admissions practices have not changed with regard to how financial-aid requests are factored in," she said. "What has changed is the new leadership in enrollment management. What we are trying to do is increase the transparency of the admissions process."

What Colleges Broadcast

Whether a college considers need is, like much else in admissions, self-reported. And there's no definitive list of aid policies—except maybe on Wikipedia. In practice, colleges convey the information to prospective students if and how they choose.

As one might expect, plenty of colleges that don't consider need happily broadcast that. The handful that are need-blind and meet admitted students' full need—policies that are considered the gold standard but that few colleges can afford—tend to offer clear, detailed explanations of those policies and make them easy to find.

To be sure, some need-aware colleges also make an effort to explain their policies. Wesleyan University did so when it announced last year that rather than remaining need-blind, it was becoming need-aware. But there is an important distinction between Wesleyan's and George Washington's practices.

Wesleyan pledges to meet admitted students' full demonstrated need. When the university became need-aware, it characterized the shift as the only way it could continue to meet that need as generously as it wanted to. Wesleyan was choosing one side in a philosophical debate over whether it's better to admit students and not provide them with adequate financial support, maybe prompting them to take on considerable debt, or to deny them admission upfront.

George Washington, by contrast, does not meet students' financial need. Like many institutions, it "gaps" some students, leaving them to cover the difference between their expected family contribution and their aid.

Still, being need-aware allows the university to support the needy students it does admit better than it otherwise could, Ms. Koehler said. "Our need-aware admissions policy enables the university to provide more-attractive aid packages for students with financial need while staying within our aid budget," she said in the statement.

This is not the first time that George Washington has run into trouble characterizing admissions. Last November the university announced that it had inflated data on incoming students' class rank for more than a decade. After that disclosure, U.S. News & World Report moved George Washington to the "unranked" category of its "Best Colleges" list. The following month, the university announced that its dean of admissions was retiring.