Make Admissions at Elite Colleges ‘Access Aware’

Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle

November 24, 2014

Recent news coverage has highlighted the fact that many colleges with great wealth are not enrolling many needy students, while a number of relatively nonwealthy colleges are. In September, for example, The New York Times released an assessment of the success of 100 elite colleges and universities in admitting students from poor families. Grinnell College, where I am president, was noted for being among the few highly selective, relatively affluent institutions that accept a high number of students from low-income families.

Many of those elite institutions are among the approximately 45 nationwide, including Grinnell, that admit students under a "need blind" policy (meaning a student’s ability to pay for his or her education is not considered during the admissions decision) and that also guarantee sufficient aid to those admitted to cover the difference between the college’s list price and a family’s ability to pay. Colleges that look at need (or, more to the point, income and wealth) in their admissions decisions are euphemistically referred to as "need aware." Almost always, need-aware institutions preferentially admit, for at least a portion of their acceptance pool, students who can pay over those who require financial aid.

Yet the idea that need-blind policies actually level the playing field is a myth. Fully 20 percent of the private colleges in The New York Times’s ranking that fall below the median level of access have such policies. Virtually every one of the measures that selective institutions (including Grinnell) use to judge applicants is deeply tied to economic status.

Wealthy families, understandably, invest huge amounts of money to ensure that their children receive the best possible education starting at the kindergarten and even preschool levels. Students’ transcripts and college applications are in effect inventories of wealth-related facts: academic rigor of schools attended, grades achieved, course options, extracurricular pursuits, test scores, even involvement in "volunteer work," which admissions officers interpret as evidence of social commitment and leadership potential. Advantages in all of those areas make children from wealthy backgrounds more competitive from the start, without any need for outright consideration of family resources.

Most children from poor families—even households deeply committed to their children’s education—do not have a chance in this competition. Their families cannot make anywhere near the same investments, and it shows in their comparative performance, even when the children in question are every bit as gifted and able as their affluent counterparts.

So, what is the fix? Should we end the use of need-blind policies? In some cases, yes. Wealthy, elite institutions that are unable to admit appropriate numbers of students from poor families through a need-blind policy should instead become "access aware." In the lingo of college admissions, they should give students from poor families a "bump" when assessing their applications. It can clearly be done: Many institutions give comparable advantages to the children of alumni.

Informally, some institutions already practice a kind of access-aware admission. But those that find such informal practices insufficient to achieve a responsible level of access for the poor should make their policies more explicit and stronger. For example, a college might put in place a strategy in which it admits the first 80 percent of its entering students need-blind. If lower-income students are adequately represented in that first group, the college can continue enrolling the rest of the class along those lines. But if they are not, the college can change its admissions practices for the remaining 20 percent of the class to achieve its access goal. No one outside the admissions and financial-aid offices needs ever to know which students were admitted under which set of criteria.

Of course, even with more-equitable admissions policies, colleges will need to invest in programs to ensure that all students who enroll receive the support they need to succeed and graduate. That too will take creative and well-supported programs and policies, but it can be done. At Grinnell, students in the lowest quartile of family income graduate at the same rate as students from families in the highest quartile.

Some will say that an access-aware admissions policy would result in lower academic admissions standards. That is unlikely. Selective institutions already choose the students they admit from a large, carefully culled pool of highly competitive applicants. Choices are often made based on slim differences in subjective measures of "fit" and projections about a student’s likelihood of academic success. It is not unreasonable to suggest that admissions officers should take social mobility into account alongside fit, record of community engagement, leadership qualities, athletic activities, being a child of alumni, or any other consideration now employed.

It will take real changes in policy and practice, like the formal adoption of access-aware admissions, before some of the nation’s elite institutions begin to provide meaningfully equitable access to the remarkable educations they offer. Let’s stop patting each other on the back for being need-blind, given that such policies often fail to lead to a sufficiently economically diverse student body, and when so many supposedly need-blind admissions criteria indirectly favor wealthy students.

It is time to take off the blinders and look squarely at who gets to study at elite colleges. We will know our institutions are seriously committed to educating students from all income groups when we stop pretending that wealth is not already a major factor, explicitly or implicitly, in determining which students will receive our congratulatory offers of admission over the next eight months.

Raynard S. Kington is president of Grinnell College.