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Need-Blind Admissions is Exactly What It Says It Is (Part Two)

Last Thursday, Bev Taylor authored an article on Huffington Post, claiming “Need Blind Admissions Is a Lie.” Its publication ignited a flurry of responses among college admissions professionals both publicly and privately. On Thursday, we posted part one of a response to her article, which offered a rebuttal to some of her proscribed actions and clarified some of the terms surrounding “need” in admissions and financial aid. Today, we continue with part two, which challenges Taylor’s central claim that need blind admissions just doesn’t make logical sense.

Good use of data vs. “logic”

Enrollment management practices at colleges and universities are based on historical trends. For example, if I want to yield a class of 1,600 students this year and I know that an average of 40 percent of students have accepted my offer of admission over the last five years, I will admit 4,000 students. Sometimes this leads to over-enrolling a class and a scramble to find extra beds on campus, and other times it leads to under-enrolling a class and use of the waitlist. The guess is imperfect, but it’s as close to accurate as colleges can be, and it often turns out to be a pretty good guideline.

Colleges use the same historical trends to constantly reassess their financial aid policies. Schools that are need aware use historical trends to determine how much money they can allocate in financial aid each year and either what they estimate the average financial aid package will be or how many students from each income level they can fund. This allows them to admit only enough students at the lower income levels to keep them within their budget for financial aid. Schools that are need blind have to look at the financial reality of remaining need blind year after year. So long as it continues to be financially feasible for the school to remain need blind and meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need, they will maintain that policy. If not, they will either become need aware or eliminate their policy of meeting full financial need.

Taylor’s article asserts that need-blind admissions policies are fiction simply because she is unaware of the ways in which need-blind colleges use historical data to protect themselves from precisely the scenario she describes: an instance in which every admitted student has extensive financial need. But she also misses a really important point when she says that need-blind admissions “defy logic.” She writes, “If MIT, an institution that is ‘need blind’ and also one that ‘meets the full demonstrated need’ for both domestic and international applicants, admitted a class in which every single applicant needed financial aid, they’d be in big trouble.” Yes, MIT would be financially stretched if they admitted a class in which every single applicant needs financial aid. But to expect that to ever happen is nothing other than pure nonsense.

Taylor makes a problematic assumption in her argument, namely that students from across the socioeconomic spectrum have a roughly equivalent chance of gaining admission to elite institutions. And while it’s true that students with roughly the same academic and extracurricular profile have an equivalent chance of being admitted to a given elite institution, it’s also true that students with elite academic and extracurricular profiles disproportionately come from families with the highest incomes. That’s because being wealthy confers terrific educational advantages: elite test prep and tutoring, private schools, extracurricular opportunities, and even independent admissions counselors, among other factors.

Around the country, college enrollment among low-income students continues to trail enrollment among wealthier groups, and when you look at elite institutions, you’re likely to find an even starker contrast. It’s much more common for a high-income student to take 10 APs and score a perfect 2400 on the SAT than it is for a low-income student to achieve the same record, simply because of his or her additional educational advantages. This is the reality regardless of a school’s policy towards need-blind admissions, which is why my two alma maters, Reed College (need aware with a 49 percent admit rate) and Stanford University (need blind with a 6 percent admit rate), each awarded need-based financial aid to the roughly the same percentage of students—about half of undergraduates—last year.

Finding your edge

Look, I’m not arguing that the application process is simple, or easy, or stress-free. There are areas of great confusion for students and parents, and admissions offices should be doing more to alleviate the pressure of that confusion. I don’t begrudge students who want to find an extra edge in gaining entry to competitive colleges and universities, but I want them to do it in ways that are informed and sensible: by creating a balanced list both in terms of likelihood of admission and expected financial aid award; by writing and revising quality essays with the help of parents and teachers and counselors; and by making the right curricular choices at every turn and receiving top marks along the way. If you’re confused about the steps you ought to take, you should reach out to your high school counselor or to a college admissions counselor at one of your colleges of interest. Remember, these educators are here to help you find your place in college, and all you need to do is ask for help.

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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College. Visit our website to learn more about Ian Fisher.