University transitions to need-aware admissions despite vocal student opposition

Anastazia Vanisko, Director of Print

During the first presidential debate, students received an email from President Barbara R. Snyder announcing that Case Western Reserve University is officially switching to a need-aware admissions policy for the 2017-2018 admission cycle, complete with a link to a “Meet Full Need” webpage designed to answer student concerns.

The decision to become need aware was made at the end of last semester according to Vice President for University Marketing and Communications Chris Sheridan.

Two weeks earlier before students received this email, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) had discussed this imminent announcement and the body’s role in ensuring the administration’s accountability. Over the summer, USG President Brian Ward and University Diversity Collaborative (UDC) President Lilly Tesfai took part in discussions with Snyder, Sheridan, Vice President for Enrollment Rick Bischoff and Vice President for Student Affairs Lou Stark to ensure that the administration addressed student concerns when marketing the new policy now known as “Meet Full Need” and to hold the university accountable when it comes to evaluation of the policy.

A need-aware admissions policy means that when accepting students, the university considers their financial situation. For all students currently at CWRU, need-aware admissions was only used for international students and students on the waitlist. Under the new policy, CWRU would consider 10 percent of the remaining student body’s financial situations when admitting them, as well. This 10 percent are people on the brink of being accepted or waitlisted.

The rest of CWRU’s students would still be admitted need blind, meaning that their financial situations are not taken into account when they apply for admission. CWRU administration said that CWRU’s previous need-blind policy was not working and resulted in 25 percent of CWRU students being gapped, which meant that the amount of aid they were rewarded was less than their demonstrated need.

Last year the policy was met with vocal opposition, resulting in an open forum where students voiced their concerns about the policy, ranging from its possible effect on the acceptance rate of middle class students to concerns that it will hurt diversity despite its intention to do exactly the opposite.

In the spring semester, Speaker Nishant Uppal and Representative Caroline Grey’s formed the Admission Policy Committee. At the end of the semester the committee proposed two resolutions, one asking for mandatory training similar to Diversity 360 for faculty and staff, and another asking that the university focus more on reaching out to alumni and asking them to consider donating to scholarships and financial aid, rather than the various buildings across campus. The latter resolution came from the university’s claim to need an extra $500 million in the its endowment—or an additional $15-$20 million annually—in order to meet full need.

Various groups worked with Uppal and Grey on the committee, ranging from concerned individuals within the CWRU community to specific groups such as UDC, the vast majority of which, according to Tesfai, voted against a need-aware admissions policy after the open forum last November.

Ward noted that a major goal of the university’s marketing plan is to stress that the current admissions policy is failing. He and the USG executive committee looked at the marketing plan to ensure student concerns were answered in an honest way.

“It’s in part a balancing act between [the administration] portraying it in a positive light and us making sure that they’re not omitting any facts or things that we found important,” he said. “There’s a frequently asked questions page [on the Meet Full Need webpage], and [we ensure that] when those questions are asked that they’re properly answered, not just glossed over.”

When the policy was discussed in USG’s General Assembly meeting, Undergraduate Nursing Representative Edward Bennett reiterated past student concerns. He worried that the new admissions policy would adversely affect diversity, saying, “We need concrete things that [the university’s] going to promise as far as diversity. Do we want to consistently have the black population on campus be five percent, or do we expect that to grow within a year timeframe?”

Bennett wants written promises from the administration regarding their definition of success and a guarantee that, if they don’t see this success, they will return to a need-blind policy.

“My other concern is that going into these talks and debates that the students aren’t being promised anything. That’s why I stressed so much getting things in written form because at the end of the day, if it’s not in writing and it’s not concrete, then the university can always renege,” Bennett said.

In President Snyder’s email to students, she said that the university will assess progress each year to ensure that the need-aware admissions policy is achieving its goal of increasing access and diversity. However she did not say at what point the administration would consider returning to a need-blind policy, though she did tell Ward and Tesfai in meetings over the summer that the university would reevaluate the policy in two to three years.

Sheridan said in an email, “The university’s focus right now is doing everything possible—including this new approach as well as other measures—to enhance diversity. If over time the program does not seem to be advancing that goal, officials will assess options for next steps.”

Sheridan also wrote that the university has not established quantifiable measurements for success and instead will use a more holistic and comprehensive approach. Bischoff noted over email that diversity often drops within the first few years of a need-aware admissions policy, so the university will not immediately consider alternative options because of a drop in racial or socioeconomic diversity. If the negative effect is dramatic, however, Bischoff said that the administration would take action.

What is considered a “dramatic negative effect,” however, remains unclear, as this can differ depending on who is looking at the results of the policy.

The university has avoided using quantifiable goals regarding the policy so as to avoid issues regarding quotas and their legality (or lack thereof) in the admissions process. Students such as Bennett, though, are asking for a promise that if diversity decreases, the university will step away from its Meet Full Need policy regardless of how small the percentage or the number of students affected.

Ward said that holding the university accountable has involved establishing a timeline for

the assessment of the policy, how much progress is enough progress and whether or not the university will reveal enrollment numbers to USG.

At this point, though, the university has promised nothing like this in writing.

USG attempted to pass Resolution 26-X on Tuesday, Sept. 27, calling for transparency regarding the statistics of the incomes of the families of past classes and future applicants, accepted students and matriculated students; for greater financial transparency so that students can see the breakdown of expenses regarding expenditures that don’t directly benefit students; and for continued yearly estimates of the cost of meeting full need with a need-blind policy. However the resolution does not ask for the university to make a written commitment.

After more than a half-hour of debate, the resolution did not pass, in part due to a lack of clarity, a reiteration of past concerns that the university administration had already addressed and no demand for a concrete commitment to reevaluating the policy.

“I think that a resolution on this issue should be written in the frame of the conversations that happened with administration over the summer and are happening currently, and the focus should be on getting commitments,” said Tesfai. “Oral promises are supposed to appease us, but we shouldn’t let them.”