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Colleges Quietly Backing Away from “Need-Blind” Aid Policies

December 23, 1991

Undated (AP) _ A growing number of elite private colleges are quietly retreating from pure ″need-blind″ policies that guaranteed every entering freshman all the aid needed to attend, regardless of the student’s financial means.

A few, like Smith College and Brown University, have done so openly - and have paid for their candor with campus protests and bad publicity.

This fall, Wesleyan University President William M. Chace proposed cost- cutting steps that would retain need-blind policies for students admitted through April. But the guarantee might not extend to students who are on waiting lists and are selected after April. That would depend on whether the scholarship budget was exhausted.

″Every institution worth its salt is now or soon will be going through a profound self-examination,″ said Chace.

But interviews with financial aid officials around the country suggest that many other private institutions have been doing much the same thing, or are weighing similar actions - with far less fanfare.

″I think there are a number of institutions that have gone the same way as Smith, and have decided that they will put it into effect in a quiet way. Why would you put up a lightning rod when you know it will attract lightning?″ said Kay Hanson, executive director of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, a Cambridge, Mass.-based research group of 32 nationally selective private colleges and universities.

″To put it bluntly, this is an area where some schools have been somewhat less than candid,″ said S. Frederick Starr, president of Oberlin College, which considers itself need-blind but does not extend its full-aid guarantee to students admitted from its waiting list or to all foreign students.

Columbia University’s aid policies are ″under study,″ said spokesman Fred Knubel in an interview. Nearly half - 1,492 students out of 3,300 - receive financial aid averaging $10,000, he said.

Amherst President Peter R. Pouncey said in late October he hoped to preserve the school’s need-blind status with proposed cost-cutting measures that include limiting the growth of the aid budget and increasing the average amount of loans and student work in student aid packages. Financial aid commitments exceeded the school’s scholarship budget by $520,000 this year and $384,000 last year.

At Smith, said spokeswoman Mary Reutener, about 60 prospective freshmen were initially denied admission to this fall’s class when the school reached its spending limit on aid, but were told they might be reevaluated if money was found. Thirty eventually got aid offers.

The problem for parents and students is that schools often continue to refer to themselves as ″need-blind,″ while doing essentially what Smith has: place controls on their financial aid budgets, and deny admission, or aid, or both, to borderline students when grant money runs out.

For example, Lafayette College, a highly selective school in Easton, Pa., offered full aid packages - a mix of grants, loans and self-help work - to only 91 percent of entering freshman this fall. But Barry McCarty, the school’s financial aid director, said Lafayette remains ″need-blind at the front end of the pipeline.″

The dilemma facing many schools like Lafayette, where 41 percent of students receive aid awards averaging $13,478, is whether it’s preferable to deny admission altogether to those it can’t aid fully, or extend an admissions offer to such students and give them the chance to come up with the money somehow.

Lafayette decided to offer admission to 25 such students.

″The student has the satisfaction of having been admitted, and can supplement our aid with other funds from foundations or relatives, and still attend Lafayette,″ McCarty said.

Brown, on the other hand, decided four years ago that it would be wrong to offer a student admission without the aid necessary to take advantage of it.

″I decided four years ago that we had to be honest about it. It was at that time we started to say that we were not absolutely or fully need-blind,″ said Eric Widmer, dean of admissions and financial aid.

The upshot is that ″need-blind″ has assumed so many meanings that it’s hard to tell which schools are genuinely living up to it.

For instance, some 849 colleges and universities - nearly one-quarter of the nation’s institutions - offer at least some aid to all students needing it, according to data compiled by Peterson’s Guides, Inc.

But only 309 promise to meet 100 percent of financial needs of entering freshmen. The number of colleges where a student’s need is the sole consideration for aid drops even further, to 237, according to the Princeton, N.J., educational publishing firm.

To qualify as truly need-blind, a college must do that, and more: It must admit or reject students regardless of their ability to pay. But admission to a college charging $20,000 or more might be an empty gesture unless the school commits to meeting 100 percent of each student’s needs for the entire four years of undergraduate study.

Fewer than 30 of the nation’s 3,000-plus colleges and universities still live up to that definition, and the number is likely to shrink further, Hanson and others believe.

Careful reading of college guidebooks can offer clues to the extent of a need-blind ″guarantee,″ Hanson said. A genuinely need-blind school might state, ″We meet the full financial needs of all students admitted.″ A school whose promise is conditional might say, ″We make every effort to meet financial needs. ...″

As painful as the current reappraisal is for students and colleges alike, officials point out that need-blind is hardly an age-old ideal. The practice spread during the prosperous ’60s and ’70s as one of many steps campuses took to shed their elitist pasts and diversify their student bodies.

At its height, pure need-blind never spread much beyond the hundred or so wealthiest private institutions.

But steady cuts in federal and state student grant programs throughout the ’80s and the recent impact of the recession on family incomes have pushed aid budgets through the roof at many colleges.

Private colleges spent an average of about 10 percent of their operating budgets on student aid in 1980, but many now devote 20 percent or more, said Richard Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

The few remaining schools able to maintain need-blind policies are the most highly endowed per pupil - Rice University, for example - and tend to draw the bulk of their student bodies from middle- and upper-income families with less need for financial aid.

In an era of scarcity, the need-blind philosophy sometimes clashes with the need to promote and preserve campus diversity, said Rosser.

Rather than simply guaranteeing full aid to everyone admitted, colleges increasingly are using grant money to attract students they most want: minority students, students from remote geographical areas, athletes and superscholars.

″Need-blind admissions is at risk,″ said Tom Hayden, Oberlin’s director of admissions.

″When it was first conceived, it was part of the egalitarianism of the era,″ he said. ″That has been replaced by a more meritocratic outlook. Now aid is being seen more as an instrument by which the institution meets various goals as opposed to being a support system for students.″

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EDITOR’S NOTE - Lee Mitgang has covered education for the AP since 1981.