For decades, the ideal of collegiate admissions has been to be “blind” to a range of criteria that (theoretically) should be irrelevant to the admissions process, and among those criteria has been the ability to pay. But as a reported by Marketplace, a recent George Washington University student paper report found that school’s admissions office was “wait-listing students based, in part, on their need for financial aid.” The report goes on to cite Joyce Smith of the National Association for College Admission Counseling as saying that more universities are also taking this approach.
So here’s the big question: is this right?
On the one hand, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that, in an economy that fetishizes college degrees and higher education has become mandatory in order to get a decent paying job, requiring students be able to pay for a degree before they enter school is dooming lower income students to a cycle of poverty. The haves will continue to have, and the have-nots will continue to not-have. On the other hand, with the rapid and continuing rise in the cost of higher education irrespective of anyone’s ability to pay (or market desire for the product being produced) resulting in crippling student loans, it’s more than a little disingenuous to suggest there is any equity to be had in admitting students to a school where they will be spending the majority of their income for decades to pay off their education. In that scenario, those who come in with the ability to pay will continue to have a decided advantage; the haves will still have, and the have-nots will simply have debt.
I would suggest the answer is not need blind admissions, but at least (as GW seems to be moving toward) “need aware” admissions, an acknowledgement that simply taking out loans will not be sufficient and that ability to pay must be taken into consideration at some point in the process. Ideally this would factor in financial aid that does not require repayment, such as scholarships and grants, so as to still allow lower-income students an opportunity to access more competitive schools. This should be paired with a discussion about what should be charged for education at schools, as well as what is and is not supported at those schools; as access to higher education becomes more elusive and more expensive this becomes more of a priority.
I also believe part of that discussion should be at least some consideration for stated major intent. Students who plan to spend a significant amount of time and money pursuing a degree that is statistically unlikely to yield a career that will allow them a decent ability to support themselves and repay any loans they needed to take out should be ranked lower. Perhaps that seems cruel, but I have seen too many students who already come out of universities without the necessary skills to succeed in business; if someone wants to spend $35,000 and up on a Master’s degree in Puppetry they may feel free to do so, but at some level we need to at least take into account the very real possibility they will not be able to get paying work at all, let alone sufficient to repay the loans they have accrued. Giving them sympathy for staging protests in the park doesn’t help; giving them some sense of market demands actually might.
Speaking of market demands, part of the problem here is the incentive structure, and I’m not just speaking of the incentive to get students to take on debt. The incentives to get students to apply just to reject them in a bid to look “selective” is ridiculous, but it’s all about gaming the system. We need a better way of ranking schools. Here’s one: perhaps we should come up with a rating system that judges schools based on the percentage of their graduates who graduate within five years, have a job within two years of graduation, and what salary they are making five years after graduation. Mix in some formula of lower-income admissions if that’s something we value, and be sure to include a percentage rating of how much of their student debt the average student admitted in the freshman class (not just graduates) has paid off within five ten years of starting at that institution.
Wonder how schools would fare then?