GW lied about need-blind admissions. What else are colleges lying about?

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:

  • use need-blind admissions, admitting students without checking whether or not they can pay full tuition;
  • provide need-based aid, giving institutional scholarships to students based on financial need rather than academic or extracurricular merit;
  • and apply class-based affirmative action, giving low-income students a leg up in recognition of the extra obstacles they have overcome in order to achieve academic success.

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.

Admissions of Guilt

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.


Photo credit: Flickr, Creative Commons