Counterbalancing the Effects of Need Aware College Admissions

by Sam Smith

In mid-October it was reported by the GW Hatchet that The George Washington University (the author’s alma mater)  “puts hundreds of undergraduate applicants on its waitlist each year because they cannot pay GW’s tuition.” The policy effectively shifts students who are not among the top applicants from “Admitted” to “Waitlisted” if they require more financial support from the University. Such a policy is not scandalous in and of itself; according to Inside Higher Ed, it is quite rare for private institution to remain entirely need blind:

 “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…”

Such a conclusion is by no means shocking; the economics of higher education, particularly at private institutions with smaller endowments, are such that there must be a critical mass of full-tuition students to support those that require financial assistance. The reason the policy has gained so much attention in the case of GW is that they appear to have been less than transparent regarding admissions criteria in the past; indeed, the University called its admission policy “Need Blind” as recently as mid-October, as per The GW Hatchet’s reporting. To understand the effect of this failure to disclose on campus demographics, some context is needed.

 In May, the New York Times reported that while roughly 15 percent of public high school graduates are Black, only one so-called “elite” college with a graduation rate above 70 percent has a student population that is more than 15 percent Black. In an accompanying article, the Times reported that,

“Whatever the merits of race-blind admissions, gifted poor and minority students are less likely than others to take the right classes to be eligible for college admission, to take the SAT or ACT, to get academic help when they need it, to fill out complex forms properly or to apply to competitive colleges.”

Put another way, gifted poor and minority students are already less likely to apply to, and gain admission to elite universities. Additionally, a litany of issues leave Black students with less confidence in their ability to succeed in college than their White peers, according to a study titled A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. These students are coming into the higher education environment with decreased confidence in their own abilities to succeed, and are underrepresented in said environments furthering their risk of failure due to the lack of a support community.

 Now we turn back to last week’s news from George Washington University. Black students, who according to the National Center for Education Statistics are disproportionately likely to receive need-based financial aid, also score lower on the standardized tests that make up part of the admissions equation.  They are more likely to be on the bubble, both score and income-wise, than their White counterparts.

When applying to a need-blind school, such students believe that their socioeconomic status will only harm them so much; during the application process they are able to address the fact that they may have had less test-preparation opportunities than their peers, or less time to participate in extra-curricular opportunities. Such disparities can be discussed in optional essays, personal statements, and interviews. Yet a need-aware institution posing as need-blind is a well-set trap for such students; it preys on their weaknesses, albeit likely unintentionally. These students, lacking the privilege of their White counterparts, apply to an institution believing they may be able to finally escape the challenges of their circumstances. Then, without their knowledge, those on the bubble are not given the same review as their affluent counterparts, and are put on the waitlist, nearly guaranteeing their rejection. According to The Hatchet, “In 2012, less than 1 percent of students offered a spot on the waitlist got into GW.”

In the coming months, the Fifth Circuit will hear Fisher v. Texas on remand from the Supreme Court to determine what level of deference the University should be accorded in determining whether sufficient diversity has been established on campus. The Supreme Court, in issuing its Fisher decision, created a two-step analysis for determining the validity of race-based admissions programs. As explained by SCOTUSblog,

In the first step, it is fine to rely upon the university’s good faith belief that there is an educational benefit in using race as one — but definitely not the only one — factor in choosing the students it will admit.  But, then, apply a second step, in which the university gets no benefit for a good faith belief in the need for the specific implementing steps it wants to take to actually achieve a form of “racial diversity.””

This is not a lenient standard, as articulated by Justice Kennedy in his opinion for the seven Justice majority. However it is possible to pass such a threshold- and it’s likely that schools like GW, which openly engage in affirmative action, have programs that would pass this test. Yet some wish to eliminate this standard; Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action deals with an attempt by the State of Michigan to restrict the use of affirmative action. Since the state adopted the ban, minority enrollment has dropped at the University of Michigan.  Allowing such a ban to stand risks decreased diversity on campus, leading to a public less prepared for an increasingly diverse and open nation.

On its face, engaging in deceptive practices regarding University admissions should not be tolerated. I’m proud of my alma mater for many reasons, but believe that this stain should not be ignored. Indeed, had the university engaged in such practices in a world where affirmative action was neither the norm nor a legally accepted solution, the results could have been devastating to minority students. Being need-aware is by no means purposefully detrimental to Black students; however, it does disproportionately affect them, and therefore additional actions need to be taken to ensure a diverse and accepting Academy. The results in the future deliberations of Fisher and Schuette may make such solutions unavailable, and that would be to the detriment of all.



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