Bischoff addresses need-aware concerns at UDC/USG forum

On Nov. 23, 2015 Vice President of Enrollment Management Rick Bischoff addressed student and alumni concerns about the potential and controversial switch to a need-aware admissions policy.

According to Vice President of academic affairs Nishant Uppal, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), in conjunction with the Undergraduate Diversity Collaborative (UDC), decided to host the forum in order to give students a chance to voice their concerns. The opportunity for students to ask questions was limited during the initial presentation on the subject at a USG general assembly meeting earlier that month.

Currently Case Western Reserve University practices need-blind admissions (with the exception of international students and some cases on the wait list, according to Bischoff). Using need-blind admissions, CWRU makes decisions about university applicants without considering how much financial aid they might need. The goal is to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need this way. This means that when CWRU subtracts the family’s financial ability from the cost of the university, the financial aid award, including state and federal grants, institutional grants, scholarships, work study and federal loans, will make up the difference.

Despite that goal, CWRU is not meeting 100 percent of need. What is occurring for 25 percent of students, according to Bischoff, is gapping—the failure of the financial aid package offered to meet the difference between what the family can afford to pay and the cost of attendance.

In order to stay need-blind, CWRU would need $15-20 million annually or an additional $500 million in its endowment.

Changes on the table

The proposed policy, as it currently stands, would change the current admissions system so that 10 percent of students are admitted need-aware, while the admission process for the other 90 percent wouldn’t change at all. The 10 percent whose financial status is considered would be students on the cusp of either acceptance to the university or placement on the waitlist. Students who aren’t accepted because of need-aware policies would be offered a spot on the waitlist.

“Some gap students enroll, said Bischoff. “This is very hard on students. The financial aid staff knows. Students, parents show up in their office in tears trying to figure out how they can make this work. I’ve heard more in the past year about student financial stress than in my five years combined.”

Over the past five years CWRU has seen a drop in the enrollment of first-year Pell grant recipients. Bischoff worries that if the university maintains its current policy, the annual three percent rise in tuition will result in even more Pell grant recipients finding themselves unable to afford CWRU.

With need-aware admissions in place, there would also be a reduction in the merit scholarships that CWRU offers. Bischoff wants to keep this decrease minimal, as he believes that merit scholarships act as financial aid for middle class students.

Fourth-year student Andrew Torres, who stated his “unequivocal opposition” to need-aware admissions at the forum, does actually support reducing merit aid. However, unlike Bischoff, he believes that the main use of merit scholarships is to offer a discount on the price of higher education.

“There’s an understanding [among enrollment management professionals] that merit aid doesn’t exactly mean aid for meritorious sort of achievement,” Torres said, citing a Forbes article on the subject. “It means how can we give a discount to students, or families, that can afford to pay, so that it’s not actually $60,000 a year.”

Torres recognizes, though, that any major reduction in merit scholarships could put CWRU at a disadvantage if similar schools, such as Carnegie Mellon University, were offering larger merit aid as a result.

Any future changes to merit scholarships would not affect current CWRU students.

Another option would be to increase alumni donations to scholarships, but unfortunately the university does not have as much control over this as students might hope. Alumni have the final say over where their money goes. While there is a $1.5 billion scholarship campaign, alumni might ultimately decide to donate to buildings like the Tinkham Veale University Center instead.

“What (Bischoff) didn’t really get into was how we can better persuade alumni to donate to scholarship funds, said Uppal. “When we ask alumni to contribute, we can do a better job of asking them to focus more on students than on buildings, is my personal opinion.”

Many students worry that, rather than helping low-income students, a change to need aware will focus admissions more on an applicant’s ability to pay rather than on the said applicant’s merit.

Second-year student Kaitlin Newcombe, after telling about her own financial hardships prior to attending CWRU, said, “I applied early action and was accepted, not based on my family’s income, but on my accomplishments and intelligence.”

Other students questioned how this will affect diversity, specifically the amount of African-American students that enroll. They cited statistics from Tufts University and Wesleyan University. According to them, both schools’ African-American enrollment decreased by three percent after implementing need-aware admissions, from 27 percent to 24 percent and 11 percent to eight percent, respectively. Only four percent of the CWRU student population is African-American, according to the College Board, so the same drop in enrollment here would be considerable.

Bischoff said that, unlike CWRU, these universities were not simultaneously increasing their financial aid packages, and he believes that CWRU will avoid a similar trend.

Coalition Application

CWRU’s main reason for considering need-aware admissions is the dropping enrollment of Pell grant recipients, but the Coalition Application is another factor in the decision process. The Coalition Application is a portfolio approach to admissions that requires its partner institutions to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need.

Although the Coalition Application would only be supplementary to the Common Application CWRU currently uses, Bischoff worries about the future consequences of not joining the Coalition Application: “If the coalition app is successful … if that were to become the preferred platform for a significant number of students, then they may only apply to Coalition institutions and not apply to Case Western Reserve.”

He also made it clear that he was considering the change to need-aware prior to considering joining the Coalition Application, citing an article in The Observer from last spring. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that, even if he does not think need-aware admissions is ideal, he has actually been considering this since 2010, only a year after he took his position as VP of Enrollment Management at CWRU.

According to a statement from the university, “The question of whether to include consideration of financial circumstances with regard to other students has been discussed for some time, but did not coalesce into a formal proposal until the spring of 2015.”

Student involvement?

While Bischoff tried to clarify what the switch would mean for future admission decisions, many students remained concerned with the involvement—or lack thereof—that they would have in the final decision.

One audience member asked what it would take to be present at the table when this decision is made, while another questioned if student concerns would even be considered. They ultimately received the same answer: Student concerns will be taken into account, but it’s up to the president, the provost and the board of trustees to make the final decision.

Alisha Braves, the former president of CWRU’s African-American Alumni Association, described what she perceived to be the underlying tension driving student questions.

“A lot of what I hear in here, based on the comments, is because of the distrust of the administration,” said Braves. “That is from alumni and students, and you all earned that appropriately.”

“One of my friends after the meeting asked ‘Why do you care?’” said first-year student Caleb Diaz. “Why wouldn’t I care? I believe that everyone deserves equal opportunity, so there’s a huge problem with [need-aware admissions].”

According to Uppal, USG and UDC are currently planning next-step meetings to discuss how the forum went and where to go from here.

The university said in its statement, “The subject was a central topic of an hour-and-40-minute lunch conversation Tuesday among roughly 20 students and President Barbara R. Snyder and Vice President for Student Affairs Lou Stark.”

Uppal said, “If the student body can formulate a strong response in any way on this issue, I think it’s going to be taken heavily into consideration.”

According to the university, “Just as with all other work in enrollment management, the university will continue to pursue multiple paths at the same time; that is, outreach and awareness efforts will continue to grow, as will strategic engagement of prospective students.”