Several of America’s most exclusive colleges offer a particular form of financial aid. This policy, in which the college admits students with out regard to financial need (need blind) and promises to meet 100 percent of the students’ demonstrated need (meets need) in theory offers a great way to run an admissions department. Simply concentrate on the merit of each student, and then allow him to attend the college without worrying about how much it costs.

The trouble is that this sort of philosophy, which often accompanies no loan policies for needy students, is really expensive. According to an article by Beckie Supiano in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

This is a tough time for those ideals. Students are arriving on campus with more financial need just as colleges are feeling pinched themselves. At Wesleyan, worries about the aid budget had been developing for a long time, says Nancy Hargrave Meislahn, dean of admission and financial aid, who is John Gudvangen’s boss. The year before he arrived, the university had overspent its aid budget. When you maintain need-blind admissions and meet students’ full need, that problem can be hard to prevent.

In May, in the midst of Mr. Gudvangen’s first year, Wesleyan announced that it would no longer admit its whole class on a need-blind basis. Instead, near the end of the admissions process, the university would allow itself to consider students’ ability to pay, a policy known as need-aware admissions.

The trouble is that meet-blind/meet-need policies were designed for many colleges when their endowments were paying out generously, and families had more money. Many are now finding it hard to keep up with their obligations. Thus Wesleyan has gone “need aware.”

Wesleyan points out, legitimately, that in offering need aware the institution is simply being honest about its situation and trying to keep education reasonably affordable. Supiano:

Dropping need-blind was not the only decision Wesleyan could have made, as Michael S. Roth, its president, has pointed out in blog posts about the change. The university could have expected its students to take on more debt. Or it could have sought out wealthier students without changing its nice-sounding policies.

Duly noted. There is, of course, another option, which is to try and cut costs. Colleges wouldn’t have to offer generous financial aid grants if they operated more efficiently and simply charged students lower tuition. (Tuition at Wesleyan is now $45,358 a year.)

Earlier this year Wesleyan also remodeled its squash building (below) and reopened it to house its career center and several academic departments.


The renovation cost $8.6 million.

Moving away from projects like that and operating on a thriftier model, admittedly, would also be a gigantic shift in the revenue model of he American university. But it’s misleading to suggest that need blind is a policy that can only exist in times of plenty. It depends on academic priorities. Fewer students would qualify for need-based aid if the costs of attendance were lower. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer