All around the liberal arts: Peer school shifts to need-blind

By Matt Day

Hamilton College, by many measures one of Macalester’s most similar peer schools, announced this month that it will not factor an applicant’s ability to pay into their admissions decision. The Clinton, N.Y. college announced March 8 that it would join the group of about 50 colleges nationwide that employ a “need-blind” admissions policy.Under need-blind, college applicants are judged solely by their academic qualifications, not their ability to pay.

Macalester switched from a need-blind to a “need-aware” policy in 2005, a decision that administrators said was necessary to preserve the financial health of the college. They argued that the switch was necessary to pay for the salaries and programs needed to remain a preeminent liberal arts college, while critics said that the choice compromised Macalester’s commitment to maintaining an economically diverse student body and admitting the most talented students.

Hamilton included the implementation of a need-blind policy as a long-term goal in a strategic planning document released last year. The college’s trustees advanced the project’s timetable, putting their personal wealth behind the effort.

At the Hamilton Board of Trustees’ December meeting, five members each pledged $500,000 to support the need-blind effort. A sixth trustee committed an equal sum later. A New York Times article reported that the college is planning a $40 million fund-raising effort to establish an endowment to support the admissions policy.

“I can’t speak about Hamilton’s thinking since I know nothing about how their planning or budgeting process worked,” President Brian Rosenberg wrote in an e-mail. “I can say that their current financial aid budget is about $23 million, or about $10 million less than Macalester’s for about the same size student body. That’s an enormous difference.”

While the percentage of Macalester students on financial aid has decreased since the need-aware switch, about two-thirds of Macalester students still receive need-based aid, compared with about 40 percent at Hamilton.

Macalester treasurer David Wheaton said he was surprised by Hamilton’s choice given the sluggish economy. Some colleges have retreated from generous aid policies in the wake of the financial crisis. Citing drops in endowment value, Williams College and Dartmouth College this year reversed course on plans to eliminate loans from financial aid packages offered to students.

“The timing on Hamilton’s announcement was a bit of a surprise,” Wheaton said. “There’s more of a back story there than is in the press. It’s a bold step and a risk.”

Wheaton emphasized that Macalester admits most students on need-blind terms, only factoring need into the equation once the financial aid budget is exhausted

Rosenberg said the college couldn’t afford to return to need-blind and fund all of its programs.

“I also don’t anticipate having those resources in any near-term or medium-term future that I can imagine,” he said.

Though the cost of a need-blind policy would vary year-to-year depending on the applicant pool, Director of Financial Aid Brian Lindeman ’89 gave the rough estimate that if the current student body had been admitted under need blind, his office would need about $3 million in additional funding, or a 10 percent increase over this year’s budget.

Hamilton’s decision comes at a time when public confidence in higher education is waning amid seemingly unsustainable tuition increases.

A study released in February by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Public Agenda – both nonprofit organizations – suggests that more people than ever believe a college education is necessary for success, but that college leaders have not kept pace by promoting greater accessibility. Sixty percent of those surveyed said they think colleges today operate more like businesses, focused more on the bottom line than on the educational experience of students.

“One of the really disturbing things about this, for those of us who work in higher education, is the vote of no confidence we’re getting from the public,” Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, told The New York Times. “They think college is important, but they’re really losing trust in the management and leadership.”

A select group of need-aware schools like Macalester say they meet the all admitted students’ “demonstrated need” as calculated by complex formulas that determine a family’s ability to pay. The policy has helped Macalester remain one of the more generous liberal arts colleges in the country, discounting the average tuition rate by more than 40 percent with financial aid.

“Our commitment to financial aid is a part of what Mac is and what makes us different from [East Coast schools],” Wheaton said. “We think it’s a different kind of place. The access has to be what people expect from us.”

Vice President for Student Affairs Laurie Hamre said any serious conversation about a return to a need-blind policy was at least a few years away. Lindeman said he thought that assessment was optimistic.

Financial aid is the single largest project of the current Step Forward fund-raising effort, with $33 million to be dedicated to an endowment supporting student scholarships.

Despite what administrators say is a consistent campaign to support financial aid, Macalester has seen mixed reviews in the press. Macalester received positive recognition in February by U.S. News & World Report for its commitment to meeting student need, but on Monday the college was named in an article posted on the magazine’s Web site as one of 18 need-aware liberal arts colleges, “Where Need for Aid Can Hurt Admission Odds.