The Shift Away from Need-Blind: Colleges Have Started Their Version of "Wallet Biopsies."(higher Education Institutions Admit Students on Economic Status Criteria)

Article excerpt

Imagine a student who has always had his heart et on attending a certain college. He has all the necessary credentials: a stellar resume, a terrific grade-point average, a strong application, and some very laudatory letters of recommendation.

He sends in the application and waits until the day when he will hear back from his chosen school. When the letter arrives, the news is bad. He has been turned down.

What went wrong? One word: money. Because the student did not have enough money to cover the costs -- room, board, tuition, and books -- of attending college, he was rejected.

A few years ago, this situation was rare. Colleges and universities prided themselves on having "need-blind" admissions policies, where the financial status of an applicant is not a factor in the student's acceptance or denial.

But now faced with rising tuition and financial aid costs, some colleges and universities have had to abandon this dearly-held principle of college admissions. In its place, a new trend has emerged called "need-sensitive" -- a policy that contradicts a longstanding ethos among colleges to admit and provide education for all qualified students regardless of their economic status.

There are those who say that colleges have been forced into need-sensitive policies because of decreased government aid and other factors. But some find the trend alarming because many parents are not aware that their college-aged children have limited access to a prestigious university -- or even an average college.

"We're not sure that a lot of parents -- African-American parents, particularly -- are in the loop," said Joyce E, Smith, Associate Executive Director of the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC). "Parents come to me and say, `I know we'll get a scholarship!' That's just not the case anymore."

According to a 1994 study of admissions practices conducted by the organization, between 8 and 9 percent of the 584 colleges and universities responding said they have need-sensitive admissions policies. Of those with need-sensitive policies, 43 were private institutions and four were public, four-year institutions. Three need-sensitive respondents did not describe themselves.

Smith said that some higher education officials claimed that it was a "waste of an admit" to put a person through the application process knowing that the student couldn't pay for the school.

The survey found that the higher the overall cost of attending a particular institution, the more likely need-sensitive policies played a role in the admissions process of that institution. But Smith predicts that more colleges and universities will be adopting similar need-sensitive policies in the future -- which she believes will hurt many disadvantaged, minority or low-income students.

"We hope these things aren't framed in terms of race and economics, but I'm afraid they will be," Smith said.

Institutions give different reasons for adopting such policies, also known as "need-aware" and "need-conscious." According to the survey, they cite: limiting tuition increases; decreasing the financial aid portion of the overall budget; or concern for student academic, social, and financial well-being.

Cost is what forced Carleton College in Northfield, MN to re-examine its policies three years ago when there was a single-year increase of 39 percent in the college's grant-aid budget.

"We couldn't sustain that. We needed to control our financial expenditures," said Paul Thiboutot, Director of Admissions.

After deliberating for a year about whether they could meet the full needs of their students, Carleton officials decided to adopt a need-sensitive admissions policy for up to 15 percent of its students. In the short history of the policy, it has been applied to eight percent of the student body. "Our goal is to get it down to zero," Thiboutot said. …