Newly Minted is a monthly series on Head Count following John Gudvangen through his first year as a financial-aid director at Wesleyan University. We’ll check in with Mr. Gudvangen as he learns the ropes of his new position and faces challenges common to his profession, as well as some unique to Wesleyan.
A few weeks ago, Wesleyan University’s president unveiled a new budget plan designed to keep the institution on a financially-sustainable path. The plan stipulates that the university will hold down tuition increases and highlight students’ opportunity to graduate in three years.
It will also end Wesleyan’s 100-percent need-blind admissions policy, a decision that has upset some students and alumni. There’s even a tumblr mocking the president for the shift. “Wes teaches you to fight inequality,*” says one post, “*same standards do not apply to admissions.”
Most colleges and universities admit students without regard for their financial circumstances, but only a handful couple that admissions policy with a commitment to meet every admitted student’s full need. Wesleyan has been a part of this small group.
In the future, Wesleyan will instead follow a policy known as “need-sensitive” or “need-aware” admissions. The bulk of the incoming class will still be admitted as before, without regard for their financial circumstances. But toward the end of the process, for the last 10 percent or so of the freshman class, Wesleyan will leave open the option of considering applicants’ ability to pay. This will allow the university to control what it spends on aid.
John Gudvangen, the university’s aid director, is familiar with need-sensitive admissions. Colorado College, where he worked until taking his job at Wesleyan, follows that policy. And he has been well aware that financial aid is not the only budget priority for a university.
As Mr. Gudvangen sees it, Wesleyan is being “transparent and honest” in making and explaining this change.
After all, he says, Wesleyan could have instead continued to promote itself as being need-blind and meeting full need while quietly expecting students to pay more. The university could have increased the amount of loans included in aid awards. It could have been less generous in calculating families’ ability to pay for college. It could have hired a consultant to come up with proxy measures for wealth in its “need-blind” review of admissions files.
In short, Wesleyan has chosen to prioritize generous support for the students it admits over admitting its whole domestic freshman class without looking at their need.
That puts the university on one side of a long-running debate about what a college should do when it doesn’t have enough money to fully support a class it admits need blind.
Need-aware colleges have decided that it’s better to reject applicants they can’t afford to support than it is to admit them with inadequate aid. Advocates of need-sensitive policies sometimes say they don’t want to admit students academically and reject them financially.
Most colleges take the opposite view, admitting students, offering most of them less aid than it would take to meet their need, and leaving it up to them to decide if it’s worth it. Proponents of this approach point out that a student might have a grandparent who’s willing to chip in, or some other benefactor who doesn’t show up in the aid application. It would be a mistake, the thinking goes, to reject a desired applicant based on the assumption she can’t find a way to pay.
But do most students who receive an untenable aid award have a wealthy grandparent? Mr. Gudvangen doubts it. Besides, he says, finding out the totality of students’ financial positions is exactly what aid offices are charged with. If students have access to money for college and aid offices are in the dark, perhaps the staff aren’t doing a good enough job.
It’s the aid office’s job to sort out what to ask families to pony up, not the families’, Mr. Gudvangen says. “I don’t know how hypocritical it would be for us to say, well, they should just be able to figure it out,” Mr. Gudvangen says, “in a world where student debt is out of control and affordability for families at higher-middle-income levels is not even thinkable for some of them.”
Being need-blind while meeting full need sounds great, Mr. Gudvangen says, but those categories are already fuzzy. Some colleges have claimed that distinction while being need-aware for international students, say, or for transfers. Wesleyan already was need-sensitive for both groups.
The shift away from need-blind admissions will bring some changes to the financial-aid office. For one thing, the staff will have to be stricter about aid-application deadlines, since a student’s need could become a factor in the admissions process. The staff will also probably end up reviewing more applicants’ aid applications.
And the change will make projections about the aid budget even more important. Because now, those models won’t just be informing the university’s leadership about what to expect. They could actually help dictate which students are admitted.