Goldberg: The Real Problems With Need Aware

Barry Goldberg, Columnist

Joe Biden once said “Don’t tell me what you value.  Show me your budget and I will tell you what you value.”  While President Barbara R. Snyder and the Board of Trustees has not released a detailed breakdown of our budget to campus, their decision to meet full need by switching to need aware admissions does shed some light on their values.  And those values don’t include students.

If you’re not familiar with need-aware admissions, in essence, the policy would mean Case Western Reserve University would know how much aid a prospective student needed when reviewing their application, and take that into consideration when deciding whether to accept or reject said application. CWRU suggests that this can be a method to help our diversity, which has been suffering lately (the percentage of underrepresented students has stagnated while the percentage of Pell Grant eligible students has plummeted), and ensure all students have their full need met.

This can sound very good at first and meeting full need is a great goal, but don’t be fooled.  There are plenty of reasons why going need aware in this way is a very bad idea.

  1. Need aware should be a last resort for meeting full need.

The Need Aware FAQ estimates the current cost of meeting full need to be $15-$20 million per year.  That sounds like a lot, and it is. But here’s some figures for comparison. Our annual operating budget is over $1 billion—with a ‘b’. President Snyder receives over $1 million per year in salary not including benefits—this places her as the 23rd highest paid university president in the country. And we spend over $63 million per year on “auxiliaries.” How that $63 million is allocated is not public knowledge. Nor is the salary for Vice President for Enrollment Rick Bischoff, who has been an advocate need-aware admissions to meet full need since coming to CWRU.

The point is the 1.5 to two percent of our annual operating budget required to meet full need wasn’t going to be easy to find, but it wasn’t impossible either. That money could have come from a lot of places in our budget. But the decision that happened behind closed doors was, essentially, to take it all from other student’s aid—we are decreasing aid to some so we can increase it to others who better improve our statistics. This should not be the first resort for finding additional funds for financial aid. It should not be the second. It should be last.

How this can be addressed: Open up our books for students and prove there was no non-essential source of funds to be diverted, or increase the budget to financial aid by $15-$20 million instead of implementing need aware.

  1. There’s no longer reason to increase funding to financial aid

When you’re trying to balance a budget of a huge university, while still leaving in enough for large salaries for you and your fellow administrators, inevitably things will get tight. And with need-aware admissions, we will always be able to meet full need by accepting fewer low-to-moderate-income students and more very wealthy students. There will never be an incentive to increase the total funding for financial aid, or make serious progress on closing that $15-$20 million gap.

How this can be addressed: Make solid, serious commitments to increase budget to financial aid every year, have an end goal for when need-aware admissions are no longer necessary.

  1. Our socio-economic diversity could suffer (and we might not even know)

There is a fundamental flaw in the way CWRU tells us this move will increase socio-economic diversity: they measure socio-economic diversity in a single statistic.  The very nature of diversity requires acknowledging that there are more than one or two types of people, but many, and all have unique and valuable experiences to add to a community.

So let’s examine the one measure we know we’ll be given, the one that will presumably be used as a metric for “success” of the policy: percentage of students who receive Pell Grants. The Pell Grant is a federal grant offered to prospective students with a background of very low income, with a maximum award of $5,775 per academic year.  The majority of Pell Grant money goes to students whose families make less than $20,000 per year.

So while the online FAQ might muse over how “definitions of ‘middle class’ vary,” the real concern is that anyone whose family makes too much to get a Pell Grant, and thereby make our “diversity” statistic look nice, but still not enough to easily afford CWRU’s high tuition might not end up attending. The “dumbbell” effect—lots of very high income students and lots of very low income students but not many students in between—has occurred at other universities and could very likely occur here.

How this can be addressed: Release detailed statistics on the income breakdown in a bracket fashion for future and past classes, announce how these brackets will be determined in advance to avoid the possibility of shifting the measuring criteria to meet the data

  1. The decision tells campus that student opinion doesn’t matter

This is perhaps the most serious problem of all. In her email to campus, Snyder bragged about the large amount of input the university sought prior to making the decision. To her credit, it is extremely important to ask students for input on these matters before proceeding. However it’s worth noting that she said nothing of what that feedback was, and for good reason: Many students hated the idea. The open forum saw overwhelmingly negative opinions expressed.  Undergraduate Student Government conversations were highly contentious to say the least. Numerous concerns were brought up, and solutions were proposed, including many of the above, that have no mention in the plans for the policy.

What good is asking for student input when any input that is not in total agreement is ignored?  What precedent does this set for the future?  If Snyder and the Board of Trustees aren’t serving students, who are they serving?

How this can be addressed: Incorporate student feedback into all important university policy changes, delay the implementation of need-aware admissions until a campus-wide referendum demonstrates significant student support.

Barry Goldberg is a fourth-year student, involved in Undergraduate Student Government, Student Sustainability Council and the Case Men’s Glee Club.