This Monday, October 22nd, the Student Budget Sustainability Task Force met with President Roth. In that meeting, we discussed many issues relevant to our work such as fundraising, implementation, long-term accessibility, and transparency. Below find our notes from the meeting: the questions we posed and the answers expressed by President Roth. None of these responses are fully direct quotations; they represent summaries of President Roth’s verbal answers. Questions and ambiguities remain, and we invite you to submit unanswered questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why has need blind not been a core feature of fundraising, of both the messaging and the goals? Why were alumni not asked to donate money explicitly to protect need blind? Why are we not planning to tell alumni to donate explicitly to save need blind?
“We’ve talked a lot about it. Our conclusion is based on limited evidence that a fundraising appeal for more endowed scholarships is more effective… especially for donors who make large contributions… There are people who think that need-blindness is the key thing and we don’t want to leave them out. We hope that by appealing for more scholarships will appeal to them… Some people think need-blind is fading fast among elite institutions… Our highest priority is financial aid endowment. We thought that was more ecumenical than just saying ‘need-blind.’ You can’t really say how much need-blind will cost. In 5 years the discount rate could go way up. What we do say is $1 million will endow a scholarship. ”
Is need awareness temporary or permanent? Does the school have any intention of going back to need blind? Would you be willing to spell out a detailed plan about how to return to need blind? What would be the timeline for such a plan?
“We don’t know what it will take to be need-blind in the future.. which is why I say we need to add more scholarships. If we have enough scholarships, than we will be need-blind. If you tell the admissions office to recruit more wealthy students, we can also be need-blind. Less wealthy students have worse applications,, statistically… so we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re having the admissions office is deceiving people. The discount rate is temporary. … We also don’t want to increase tuition dramatically forever.”
Have you developed a more detailed plan for raising scholarships, have you worked on a timeframe?
“What I’m trying to figure out how to do is to put more in the endowment for scholarships. If you get $100,000 into the endowment, you only get $5000 but you know it’s there. We’re working to get any new gifts to put directly into the endowment for aid. Why not have a fund just for aid? Well you run into the same problem. If you put it directly into the endowment you’ll have more in the future. We have some debt for which we need to start paying off in 2023.
Will grant levels be going up?
“I think this group will be meeting with Jon Gudvangen about resolving some of the painful aspects of financial aid… we want to be sensitive to how to enhance existing packages. It does come out of the same budget, but we are open to talking about being more open to making it more fair, like with work-study requirements.”
How exactly will need-aware be implemented?
“Well, we haven’t done it yet so it will be a learning experience. People will be admitted irrespective of whether they apply for aid. If they do apply for aid, they’ll be plugged into a program that helps us calculate how much aid we’ve already given out. How much aid have we given, and if we’ve given only ¾ of the aid budget, then we’ll probably be need-blind. That’s the Tufts model. I don’t think we’ll actually be need-blind, we would expect around 90% will be needblind. We have about 800 students who are qualified but didn’t get in ‘automatically.’ Of this group, maybe a quarter will be admitted, so we make different considerations about who to admit. If we don’t have a needy pool, which is unlikely, then we’d be need-blind. So we’ll go through most of the admissions process without considering need, but we have a budget of how much we can give, and when we get close to depleting that we’ll have to pay more attention to how much aid we’re giving out. At the end of the year, we’ll know how it works out.”
During the admissions process, do we go automatically after admitting 90% to just admitting full pay?
“We’d rather have some wiggle room… of that group when you get to the end, there’s a group where they all could be admitted. We won’t be in a situation where we only admit someone because they can pay, just like we don’t want to admit someone simply because they’re from Arkansas. It’s a fact that people from Arkansas have a better chance than people from Horace Mann… it’ll be an ingredient.”
Will all students have their finances/financial aid request reviewed in admissions?
“No, we won’t be looking at it for ‘single-read’ applicants. For the last 700 or so people, where people might disagree, we have to figure out how to put together a final class. You can read the gate-keepers and see how they ‘trade’ applicants. We all like to think we got in because we were really wanted, but it’s a lot harder than that to agree on some members of the class.”
In Wesleyan 2020 the Board and you said that one of your goals was to maintain need blind admissions as a core value, and this was written only 2 years ago. What changed so drastically in the last 2 years that you changed your policy? What was the impetus?
“We went through the budget crisis in 08-09 we made a lot of decisions to reduce the budget, and there was at the time pressure to curtail pressure on financial aid. A lot of other people were sacrificing. I really thought it should be the last place. Starting with 2015 the depth of aid grew significantly. I think close to 48% of student on aid, and if that trajectory continued we’d be facing a crisis. It actually went down the next year. So maybe the issue is how much are we spending rather than the badge. This has come up before as you know, and the school has done many things to maintain its image in this regard which is not unimportant. But how much longer can we keep doing this when the trajectory is unsustainable? Tuition raised in excess of inflation. I was asked to give need blind up in 2008 and had the votes, but I said no, I don’t want to give it up. I take the point that giving this up is going back on a principle, but I didn’t see a way to honestly maintaining a commitment to need blind without sacrificing other core values or the educational experience.”
What makes the financial aid budget go up higher than tuition increases?
“A lot of people think that the federal govt underwriting loans allows colleges to raise tuition so high. I don’t believe that. Real wages have not gone up in this country. So we’re trying to maintain access for a shrinking portion of the population. Wealthy people are doing just fine. Int’l students create a different dynamic. So that changes things, we’ve never been need blind for them.”
Can you make a model with fundraising numbers and discount rates to predict our ability to be need-blind?
“Well, the last part is hard. The figure we’ve been using has been $5 million dollars which comes from the historical growth in the aid budget . A conservative estimate is 10% going up every year. We’ve asked what would it be if the FA budget was 1% more of the budget? Again, you can admit less needy students and still be need-blind. We still look for high-need students because we think everyone benefits from that.”
The president of Grinnell told students a year in advance that they were considering eliminating need blind, whereas people here felt like it was dropped on us during senior week. What are your thoughts?
“I’m sorry they feel that way, but we’d been talking about it for six months. If I had Grinnell’s endowment per student, we wouldn’t have this conversation. Should we have started earlier? I don’t think it would make a difference. It was on the website, Wesleying, on my blog… the decision was made it May, yes. We said, here’s what the issues are that we’re dealing with. I think if we put it off, people would say, “We’ve consulted enough.” I know it offends some people moral values, and it offends mine, but the alternative offends me more.”
It is a goal for you to do everything in your power to be need-blind?
“I think the notion of need-blindness affirms our own self-esteem but I don’t think it necessarily makes moral or economic sense when you consider everything. I do want to do what I can to admit people without regard for their ability to pay. But I’d be suspicious if we’re need-blind accidentally. I want to have more scholarships for people with need. It’s a goal to raise the discount rate over time.
Budget cuts would probably mean layoffs. We’d look for alternative revenue sources. I think increasing loans or tuition is a mistake. I think that’s actually more poisonous for the campus atmosphere. I think we can reasonably disagree about that. I don’t think we should increase loans or not pay our faculty what our peers do. “