All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


03 June 2012

The End of Need-Blind at Wesleyan: Loneliness and Acculturation

Wesleyan University, my alma mater and the only college in the nation to accept me out of high school, is ending its policy of universal need-blind admissions.  That's not to say that need-blind admissions is going away entirely... just that there is going to be a portion of the class that may not be admitted on that basis.

Before I start in on this topic, you should go read two other blog posts at Rachel Levy's education blog.  The first is by her; she's also a Wesleyan Alum, and we were there at the same time.  The second is by me.  Now our dialogue isn't about need-blind as such, but rather about the sort of student that Wesleyan should be pursuing for admission, and the opportunities that various people have to become that sort of student.  But the issues raised are important ones, and are indicative of the sorts of things that alumni think about.

With those arguments in mind, let's get back to the subject of need-blind:

In the face of financial pressures, Wesleyan University is moving away from its blanket need-blind admissions policy. Instead, the college is planning to peg increases in the size of its financial aid budget to the size of its overall budget. As long as that money meets need, it will consider students irrespective of their ability to pay. Once the aid runs out, however, the college will start factoring in family income and ability to pay. 

So there's a limited pot of financial aid money, and it gets doled out until its gone, and then it doesn't.  I have to say, this seems to be a pretty equitable solution, and I say this even though I can pretty much guarantee that I wouldn't have been admitted under the new system.  I had to be among the last people admitted in my class -- I was rejected from quite literally every other school to which I applied.  (The list was short and distinguished, true, but not all the schools were higher-ranked than Wesleyan.)  I was also pretty hard-up for cash.

The fact is that I seriously doubt that student quality is going to be hurt much; and in any event, as President Roth pointed out, the trade-off would have to come in terms of educational quality:
 Wesleyan President Michael Roth said there is a moral argument for a college like his to not accept students if they can’t meet their need, and not to compromise quality in the name of access.

“I’m willing to give up the label of need blindness in favor of giving students who are here the best chance of succeeding,” Roth said. “Our job is not to wear a badge of moral purity. Our job is to provide the best chance of success to the students we graduate.”

This all seems right to me.  There is a worry I have, though -- one that goes right to the heart of "providing the best chance of success to the students (Wesleyan) graduates."  I'm not sure it's well-founded, but since when do all of our worries have to be well-founded?  Let me start by saying a little about my time at Wes.

Wesleyan wasn't an easy experience for me.  It was a really, really nasty culture shock that took a lot of painful adjusting.  The interpersonal norms and social skill sets for New England/New York Middle-Upper Professional class life and Southern California Lower Working class life are very, very different (and I wasn't even that great at the latter, despite being something of a native).  The biggest help in getting me through it all was a lovely lady I fell in love with -- someone who grew up in the sort of academic/professional social circles that produce most of Wesleyan's students, and to which nearly all of Wesleyan's students aspire.  She was able to teach me a great deal.

But also of great help was my circle of friends, a substantial chunk (30-40% maybe?) of whom were also not really from that world.  There was a certain amount of comfort to be found there, a respite from the aggravating and trying process of acculturation.  There was also support: we sometimes talked about things in indirect (or very rarely, explicit) ways.  There was a certain humor to be had in being foreigners together in a world we were not yet quite a part of.

Now, to the degree that Wesleyan reduces need-blind admissions, they are necessarily going to be thinning the ranks of those of us who are by birth aliens to the elite social milieu.  And that, I think, is going to make it more difficult to adjust.

It's a bit of a tightrope, of course, if your goal really is acculturation.  I think it's the goal  -- perhaps unconsciously so -- of many of the students who come to Wesleyan "from the outside", as it were.  And despite all the very vocal talk about diversity and multiculturalism, I strongly suspect that, for good or ill, that what Wesleyan really "wants" -- as far as institutions want things like this -- is cultural and racial diversity in its students, combined with a very homogenous set of middle- to upper-class values.  So from a certain perspective, the goal of acculturation may be Wesleyan's goal as well.  (I am not passing judgment on this -- just pointing it out; though, from a certain perspective, education is by nature a process of acculturation.)

But if that's your goal, and if you want to be able to maintain a light touch and avoid heavy-handed indoctrination, then the mix of students is critical: too few people with whom to share the struggle and your students from lower-class backgrounds become isolated and withdrawn.  College is stressful enough.  Too many, though, and they start to aggregate and withdraw, and the social pressure to adopt the new values diminishes. There's a happy medium somewhere in there for the assimilation-minded, but the more you cut need-blind admissions, the more you move towards the "isolated and withdrawn" end of that spectrum, and the harder it becomes for those who are left.

While I am committed to equity and fairness, I don't see the end of need-blind admissions as a moral violation; as I said in my post at Rachel's spot, I was grateful that Wesleyan admitted me because they didn't really have to.  And President Roth has it right when he says that the University's moral commitments are to its students first and foremost.  But with those commitments in mind, I did want to try to tease out what I saw as a possible difficulty that the end of universal need-blind may pose to the very students who are supposed to be helped by whatever portion of need-blind admissions is kept in place.

Maybe there's no real choice, financially.   And maybe the "outsiders" who come to Wesleyan will just have to grit their teeth a little harder and suck it up.  Life's not fair, after all, and I still think it's simply amazing that a school like Wesleyan would admit people who couldn't pay in the first place.

But let's also be mindful of what might be going on, beneath the surface, and what the unintended consequences of our policies might be.


Arthur Burkart said...

I really appreciate this post. I am currently a junior at Wesleyan University and am of the impoverished-income bracket. I thank you for considering possible benefits and repercussions of removing need-blind aid. You jump to no conclusions and I think that's important. You may find this article interesting:

Tufts recently adjusted their need-blind policy and it appears, at least from this article, to be working. I think enough research has been done to prove race-blind admissions doesn't work, but I don't think I can say the same about NBA. I personally believe NBA hurts lower-income students as much as race-blind admissions hurt SOC. Instead of turning a blind eye to need, I think it'd be much more helpful for schools like Wesleyan to be aware of need and try to accommodate students as best as fiscally possible.

I'd be interested to see how your opinion has developed over the past couple months. Thanks!

Arthur Burkart

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