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Need-aware universities: Yet another flaw with the college admissions process

The college admission process is shrouded in mystery. Few are privy to what exactly goes on in admission offices across the country, making it that much scarier for the high school seniors who, come August, are creating Common App accounts and brainstorming topics for the dreaded personal statement. Students particularly desperate for admission, though, might want to spend more time analyzing bank statements.

American University, Boston University, Northeastern University, Tufts University and our very own Case Western Reserve University are just some of a concerningly large number of schools that are decidedly “need-aware.” This means exactly what it sounds like: These universities consider an applicant’s ability to pay tuition when considering them for admission. Need-blind schools, conversely, don’t factor finances into admission decisions. In 2022, 115 American schools were considered need-blind institutions, though a number of these still considered economic status for certain students—namely, international students. Of these 115, a whopping seven universities had need-blind policies for all students, both international and domestic. These low numbers are particularly concerning given the fact that there are nearly 3,000 four-year institutions in the U.S.

The decision to either disregard or consider a student’s ability to pay is by no means  straightforward. Choosing a need-blind policy affects the financial aid available to admitted students as well as the financial stability of the given institution. This does not make these policies any less essential, though—especially not with the added difficulty international, first-generation and low-income students currently face. It simply means that the implementation of these policies must be done thoughtfully.

Need-aware policies are most obviously harmful to low-income students. Qualified applicants applying to programs ideally-suited to their interests and career paths are rejected simply because their family’s income lacks the necessary number of zeros. Oberlin College admissions employee Elizabeth Myers Houston verified this sad fact in an old blog post: “We invariably find ourselves wait-listing or denying some students each year who are otherwise well qualified and appealing, due to a high level of financial need.” She also mentioned that some students “on the edge of admissibility” are admitted simply because “they can contribute to the costs of an Oberlin education.” Because college is such an integral part of career preparation, the disadvantages low-income students face can set them back in the long run, keeping them from fully realizing their potential or reaching their goals.

Unfair admission policies can also negatively affect the economy—a fact that Catharine Bond Hill, Vassar College’s president emerita, explains at length: When deserving students aren’t admitted to suitable colleges their “contributions to the economy…may be reduced.” This is especially a problem given the fact that lower income consumers are also not contributing much to other markets. “[T]axpayers subsidize higher education in a variety of ways,” Hill writes, “under the premise [that] it benefits society as a whole. These subsidies are significantly higher at selective institutions,” which then allows them to “reap the benefits of preferential tax treatment on endowment earnings and charitable giving.” The wealthier students attending these schools, then, are benefiting more from these subsidies than “their lower income peers.” How is that fair?

Implementing need-blind policies is understandably difficult, especially without negatively impacting the amount of financial aid schools can offer to admitted students. And while it will often not be as simple as just allocating more money to need-based aid, this is a good first step. Hill also suggests that universities should begin acknowledging any “economic challenges” students managed to overcome in their pursuit of higher education.

Additionally, Hill argues that “greater data transparency [might] encourage schools to take action” and remain committed to common goals such as “access and equal opportunity.” Such a step might also persuade policy makers to shift their attention towards helping lower income students as the available data will allow them to “see more clearly the implications of reducing their support for higher education.”

“Need-aware” is a euphemism if I’ve ever read one, hiding an ugly truth behind somewhat mild language that doesn’t reflect the term’s implications. Need-aware policies are evidence that socioeconomic discrimination is very much in play during the admissions process, providing wealthier students a boost they don’t really need. In the wake of debates over affirmative action and legacy admissions, it is important to also acknowledge how socioeconomic status affects admission decisions—and why it no longer should. Maybe then, as Hill explains, we can restore at least some degree of trust in higher education institutions and the admissions process.

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About the Contributor
Rebecca Warber, Copy Editor
Rebecca Warber (she/her) is a second-year student studying English. As her choice of major suggests, she loves to read and write in her free time. More often than not, you can find her in the Law Library, either writing for The Observer or desperately trying to finish whatever reading assignments are due that day.

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