Is george washington university need blind?
Administration officials acknowledged that some students who had asked for financial aid were put on wait lists merely because they could not afford the total cost of $61,918 to attend the private school.
The GW Hatchet, the campus newspaper, criticized the university's admission officers for failing to be honest with undergraduates, reporting that university officials even told students as recently as five days ago at an information session that it paid no attention to financial need in admission.
In December, the university revealed that for more than a decade it had "misreported" to U.S. News and World Report the number of its freshman class who were in the top 10 percent of their high school class. As a result, George Washington received an "unranked" rating.
"I am disappointed, but not surprised," Matt Corica, a 2007 graduate who lives in Randolph, N.J., wrote in an email to ABCNews.com. "Since I went there, the school has spent far beyond its means in an attempt to raise its profile and jump into the US News top 50; it makes sense that they would try to make up the difference by preferring full-boat over aid students at the margins of acceptance."
The news comes on the heels of a report today from the nonprofit College Board that even though average costs to attend the nation's four-year colleges and universities are stabilizing, the number of students receiving financial aid is shrinking.
Laurie Koehler, George Washington's newly hired associate provost for enrollment management, revealed that students who meet standards, but need more support, are wait listed in a Q and A provided by the university.
"I've been working hard on engaging the campus community more fully in the work of undergraduate admissions and trying to increase the transparency of admissions processes and policies," she said.
According to the university, about 10 percent of the 22,000 applicants in 2012 were put on the waitlist. Less than 1 percent of all waitlisted students are eventually accepted.
"Ten percent is an estimated maximum figure of those applicants, but of course, there could be as few as none," said George Washington University spokesman Dave Andrews.
How many moved to the wait list that are financial aid applicants "varies according to several factors such as the strength of the applicant pool, the financial aid budget and general economic conditions of the country," he said.
Last week, Koehler explained the "need aware" policy and had pledged to merge admissions and financial aid offices to boost enrollment and diversity.
Admissions representatives do not consider financial need during the first round of reading applications, she explained. But before applicants are notified, the university examines its financial aid budget and decides which students it can actually afford to admit.
George Washington officials provided this statement to ABCNews.com today:
"[The] story in the ... Hatchet may have given the impression that the university's consideration of student need in its admissions process has changed," it said. "The university's admissions practices have not changed with regard to how financial aid requests are factored in. What has changed is the new leadership in enrollment management. What we are trying to do is increase the transparency of the admissions process."
The university said that its policy is "need-aware," meaning that financial need is only considered during the end of the admission process. In the first review of applications, committees have "no knowledge of need."
"The Hatchet story suggests that the university's practice of need aware admissions automatically disadvantages students with need," the statement said. "Quite the contrary, 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. More than 60 percent of our students receive grants from the university."
Many colleges and universities without hefty endowments use a "need-aware" policy, but observers and admission officers from other institutions say George Washington has, until now, been "dishonest."
"It is an issue of transparency -- GW was misleading their clientele by saying if you are poor, that will have no bearing if you get in or not," said Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability. "That's just blatantly not true. People got onto the waiting list and money was there to fund them, but if it wasn't there, they didn't [fund them.]"
"It isn't a poor school ... but compared to Harvard, Yale and even relative to Northwestern, Duke and Columbia, it wants to be in the top ranks and behave like it's in the top ranks, but they don't have the resources," he said. All those institutions have need-blind policies.
Vedder said George Washington's $847 million endowment isn't big enough to support need-blind admissions.
George Washington has been facing the reality that other high price-tag schools have been wrestling with since the financial collapse of 2007 took a bite out of endowment interest -- only a handful of top-tier colleges and universities can afford need-blind admissions.
Even Grinnell College, which, thanks to former trustee Warren Buffett has a $1.6 billion endowment, may be rethinking its generosity, according to a 2012 interview with NPR.
"It just became clear that if we continue to give more and more aid, the numbers don't add up," Grinnell president Raynard Kington told NPR.
Need-blind and underwriting about 62 percent of the average total cost of attendance, Grinnell is second only to Harvard University in what is known as its discount rate, according to a Grinnell spokesman.
Duke, with its $6 billion endowment is need-blind for U.S. citizens and legal residents and need-aware for international students. If admitted, the university meets the "full need" of all its students, according to Duke's dean of undergraduate admissions Christoph Guttentag.
"I thought it was unfortunate that a school of this caliber would find itself in that position," said Guttentag of George Washington.
"It's not an excuse, but it is an indication of the pressure that colleges face in a very competitive marketplace where people are paying attention to rankings," he said. "I don't excuse it, but these sorts of things don't happen in a vacuum."
With "greater transparency," more colleges will likely become need-aware, according to Guttentag. And if they are, he said, these institutions need to guarantee they can meet the full demonstrated financial need of all the students they accept.
Such is the case at Connecticut College, a small liberal arts school with a $211 million endowment, which has been "quite up front" that it is need-aware for the last 20 years, according to Dean of Admission Martha Merrill.
"A handful of schools can say they are need blind, but do they meet the full demonstrated need?" she asked. "We ensure every student who is admitted has their full need met."
Like George Washington, Connecticut College is need blind on its first reading of an application. Students that "sit on the bubble" – those students who may not have the strongest applications but have "something compelling about them" -- are sidelined for a look at their financial needs, said Merrill.
"At the end of the day, when we are ready to send out our decisions and have the financial information, we run some scenarios and run yield models and may find out we have overspent," she said. "I have a budget and I need to keep that budget."
Merrill said she "applauds" George Washington for clarifying its policy.
If we want to expand college access for low-income students, we need to overhaul admissions at selective colleges. We could radically increase low-income students’ chances of attending top universities if institutions would pledge to:
These are big demands, but they are not impossible to achieve. After more than a decade of considering family finances in admissions, Vassar College made the leap to need-blind admissions in 2007.
A number of prestigious universities and liberal arts colleges already offer need-based aid only. And the University of Colorado recently implemented a new socioeconomic affirmative action policy that considers applicants’ “disadvantage index” as well as their “overachievement index.”
The first obstacle in reaching this goal, however, is not that colleges are unable or unwilling to meet these criteria, but rather that they are simply not honest to begin with about how their admissions processes work. This week, the GW Hatchet, the student newspaper of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., reported the university has been misleading applicants for years about the role of finances in admissions decisions.
Up until this week, GW described its admissions process as need-blind. However, new information from university officials reveals the university actually does consider students’ ability to pay when making decisions about those on the cusp of being admitted versus wait-listed—a group which constitutes up to 10 percent of all applicants.
This isn't the first time universities have provided contradictory or misleading information about their admissions processes. My colleague Richard Kahlenberg wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012 about an exchange with MIT in which the university denied using legacy preferences for children of alumni, despite institutional reports to the contrary, and altered the public forms once the discrepancy was pointed out. (Thanks to cached versions, both the original and edited forms are available online—a good reminder that the Internet is forever!)
Earlier this year, a first-person account from one of UC Berkeley’s “external readers” gave a fascinating account of what goes on behind the closed doors of university admissions. Ruth Starkman, a professor at a neighboring university, signed on to help review Berkeley applications for the fall 2011 admissions cycle. While California state law bans universities from considering race or ethnicity in admissions, Starkman’s account makes clear that readers are aware of applicants’ individual racial/ethnic backgrounds.
One can’t help but wonder if this awareness is a factor, conscious or subconscious, as readers score applications.
This secrecy and misinformation is disturbing coming from institutions, whether public or private, benefitting from significant public subsidies. Catharine Hill, President of Vassar College, broke ranks with many colleagues at private universities in telling the New York Times that all colleges, public and private, have a duty to serve people from all walks of life. “If young people don’t have an equal shot at getting a great education, we’re going to create a society we’re not very happy with,” she said.
The good news, at least, is that GW has come clean about its “need-aware” admissions policy. Maybe other colleges will follow suit, shedding light on the mysterious inner-workings of admissions offices. An honest assessment of current practices is the first step toward changing the system.
Not many private colleges and universities can make that pledge -- to be need-blind in admissions -- but GW appeared to be one of them. One problem: The university was in fact need-aware, meaning that it in fact took applicants' ability to pay into account when making final decisions, and for years has been putting on the waiting list some applicants who were judged worthy of admission but lacked the funds to pay for their education. Meanwhile, other applicants -- judged less worthy on academic measures, but capable of paying without financial aid -- were admitted instead.
Being need-aware in admissions -- as George Washington now admits to being -- is hardly unusual. Being need-aware and saying that you are need-blind is another thing altogether. And so the university is rushing to explain itself after the false claims about keeping finances out of admissions decisions were revealed Monday in The GW Hatchet, the student newspaper.
What the university has done to date -- entirely consistent with need-aware but not need-blind policies -- has been to conduct a first review of applicants without regard to financial need. Then, after determining how much money the university has available for aid, that total goes into the calculations of whom to actually admit. Once the aid money is exhausted, students are admitted or waitlisted based on ability to pay.
The university admissions site was recently updated and now says: "Our admissions committee evaluates candidates without factoring in financial need. Initial decisions are based solely upon the merits of the applications. At the point of finalizing admissions decisions, we must balance a student's financial resources with the university's aid budget. This practice of being need-aware allows us to meet as much need of as many students as possible. In fact, over 60 percent of GW students received grants from the university, and last year more than $160,000,000 of institutional aid was awarded to undergraduate students." The previous language on the site is viewable via the Internet Archive and makes no mention of being need-aware.
The admission by GW that it was falsely claiming to be need-blind comes less than a year after the university acknowledged that it had been reporting incorrect admissions data on its website and to U.S. News & World Report for use in rankings. For example, George Washington reported that 78 percent of new students were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. The actual proportion of such students is 58 percent. Shortly after the false data problems were revealed, Kathryn Napper retired as dean of undergraduate admissions, and the university reorganized the admissions office.
On Monday afternoon, the university released a statement from Laurie Koehler, senior associate provost for enrollment management, who was named to that position in March. She said that the university has not changed its policy, only the way it describes its policy. "The university’s admissions practices have not changed with regard to how financial aid requests are factored in. What has changed is the new leadership in enrollment management. What we are trying to do is increase the transparency of the admissions process," Koehler said.
"I believe using the phrase 'need aware' better represents the totality of our practices than the phrase 'need blind.' It is important to note that consideration of need occurs at the very end of the admissions process," she said.
Generally, experts say that low-income students are best-served by need-blind policies. Even though many need-aware colleges are generous with financial aid, when they reach the point where they are out of aid, wealthier students are admitted over low-income students.
Koehler's statement, however, objected to this view, saying that the student newspaper "suggests that the university’s practice of need aware admissions automatically disadvantages students with need. Quite the contrary, 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. More than 60 percent of our students receive grants from the university."
By being need-aware for years and suggesting otherwise, George Washington appears to have violated the Statement of Principles of Good Practice of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which is a code of ethics for the admissions profession. The statement says, for example, that colleges should "state the specific relationship among admission and financial aid practices and policies." Further, the code says that colleges must "be responsible for ensuring the accurate representation and promotion of their institutions in recruitment materials, presentations and scholarship materials."
Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) announced Monday that it would invest an additional $1 billion in financial aid for students. That investment will allow WashU to adopt a need-blind undergraduate admissions policy, effective immediately.
The action comes on the heels of WashU’s announcement that it had achieved a 65% return on its Managed Endowment Pool (MEP) for the 2020-21 fiscal year, a huge gain the university said at the time would be used to boost its support of students and strategic academic initiatives. The MEP had a value of $15.3 billion at the close of the fiscal year on June 30, 2021.
The new financial aid initiative, called Gateway to Success, will include $800 million in endowed funding to support need-blind undergraduate admissions, meaning the university will not consider an applicant’s financial situation when making admissions decisions while still meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need for admitted undergraduates.
Another $200 million will be designated for financial aid for graduate and professional students in the university’s Brown School, the School of Law and the School of Medicine, as well as in business, engineering, art and architecture, and Arts & Sciences.
“I could not be more pleased that we’re making good on our promise to make a Washington University education more accessible to all qualified students, regardless of their financial background,” said Chancellor Andrew Martin in the university’s announcement. “Since I became chancellor nearly two years ago, becoming need-blind has been a top priority. Building on the momentum that began with our previous administration, we’re finally making it happen.”
Martin added that he believed the institution’s “work is far from done,” citing the need to make sure that students from all socio-economic backgrounds have the resources necessary for them to succeed after they’ve been admitted. “We must redouble our efforts to provide all of our students with the tools they need to thrive and participate fully in our world-class educational experience while on campus.”
With the decision to go need-blind, WashU joins about 60 other universities with similar policies according to Inside Higher Education. Included are schools in the Ivy League, Stanford University, the University of Chicago and most recently Johns Hopkins University. But several colleges that had at one time employed need-blind admissions have stopped doing so in the past few years, claiming that they could no longer afford to sustain the policy.
Washington University, with a total enrollment of about 15,000 students, has often been criticized for the small percentage of students from low-income backgrounds that it admits and educates. According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), only 15% of its entering students in 2019-20 received a Pell Grant. That’s less than half of the percentage of undergraduates nationwide who are awarded Pell support.
An unusually high proportion of WashU undergraduates pay the full sticker price, resulting in an annual cost of attendance in excess of $70,000. For the 2021-22 academic year, undergraduate tuition was $57,750, in addition to more than $1,000 in various required fees. Depending on the option that a student chooses, room and board costs run about $17,000.
Washington University is one of dozens of high-performing public and private institutions that are members of the American Talent Initiative, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies. It asks top colleges and universities to pledge to expand access and opportunity for talented low- and moderate-income students.
The goal of the American Talent Initiative is to graduate - by 2025 - an additional 50,000 lower-income students from the 334 colleges and universities that consistently graduate at least 70% of their students in six years. But progress has been slow, in large measure because of a decline in the numbers associated with the pandemic.