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‘Need Blind,’ But Not Too Blind

George Washington University has long told prospective students and parents that its admission staff was “need blind” when considering applications. It turns out they were peeking under the edge of the blindfold.

The GW Hatchet, an independent student paper, recently broke the story that GW’s admissions process “has always factored in financial need,” contrary to claims by its admissions and financial aid offices. While admissions officers make their first cut without regard to an applicant’s financial situation, students on the cusp of acceptance are often shifted to the waitlist if they need substantial financial assistance. This practice reportedly affects up to 10 percent of applicants each year.

Skewing college admission in favor of students whose families can pay all or most of the sticker price is not unusual. The only reason certain schools can adopt need-blind policies in the first place is that they have enough students who are able to pay the asking price, and alumni or family members willing to make generous donations above and beyond it. Schools with longstanding and healthy endowments can afford to promote socioeconomic diversity in their student body without compromising their academic programs. Schools without such resources have no choice but to be more judicious in their financial aid offers.

But George Washington has for years taken application fees under false pretenses from families for whom those fees are not pocket change. And it has regularly disappointed qualified kids who were told they would be considered without regard to their financial situations, but who ended up instead on a waitlist from which they had almost no chance of getting accepted.

Application fees are not the only reason, or even the principal reason, that schools like GW encourage many more applicants that they have the capacity to admit. Turning a greater number of applicants away makes a school look more selective, which is a prime factor in school rankings, such as those published annually by U.S. News & World Report. Though many school administrators claim not to take such rankings too seriously, some schools have evidently taken them seriously enough to try to game the system. GW itself is unranked this year on U.S. News’ list; it lost its spot after the University disclosed that it had inflated admissions data related to its applicants’ high school class ranks.

The problem of cheating such ranking systems is not limited to GW. In early 2012, the news broke that Claremont McKenna had falsified its applicants’ SAT data. Iona College admitted to lying about its data as well; so did the law schools of Villanova University and the University of Illinois. Baylor University offered admitted students financial incentives to retake the SAT in order to raise the school’s average admitted student score.

Criticism of the U.S. News & World Report list is longstanding and extensive. Some colleges, mostly liberal arts schools like Reed, St. John’s College and Dickinson, have pushed back by actively choosing not to participate. However, the fact that such schools feel the need to explain the decision to prospective students and their families suggests how influential these rankings remain.

In a Forbes article reacting to the recent revelation of GW’s need-aware admissions process, journalist Josh Freedman noted that “The premise of the high-tuition, high-aid model is that the university can raise tuition but keep the school affordable for most students by increasing financial aid in tandem.” As he then goes on to explain, this state of affairs leads to situations like GW’s, where a university lacks sufficient funds to give financial aid to every qualified student who needs it. Other than adopting need-aware policies, the only avenue left to most schools is to increase fundraising efforts, especially those directed at alumni.

GW’s major problem in the short term is not funding, however. It is that its administration has been caught in dishonest behavior twice in a short time.

When colleges cheat in athletics, they are subject to penalties, including suspension from bowl competitions and the loss of television revenue. But unlike students, schools do not face suspension over cheating at academics. U.S. News & World Report may choose not to rank schools that cheat - though it left Claremont McKenna on its list, even after it admitted to inflating students’ SAT scores. But to my knowledge, no accreditation body pulls the plug on a major university just because the public can no longer trust what it says about itself.

Whether or not schools should offer need-blind admissions is debatable, and I have written before about the need for changes in the accreditation process. However, in cases like that of GW’s admission process, the immediate problem is one of trust. The issue is aggravated by dissembling by the school. In the GW Hatchet article, university spokeswoman Candace Smith is quoted saying that calling the process need-blind was not “intentionally misleading.” She went on to say, “It’s still the same process, but it’s a matter of one person defining it one way and one person defining it another way.”

Prospective students and their families are unlikely to be thrilled to learn that it was their own fault if they interpreted “need-blind” as a process in which financial need did not affect their prospects for admission. GW will not rehabilitate its reputation by simply claiming that it should have been obvious that “need-blind” admissions were only need-blind part of the time.

As long as schools have the incentive to encourage many applicants they know they cannot fund, more scandals like GW’s are inevitable. In the meantime, families should treat shopping for colleges the way they treat shopping for cars. Assume the people on the other side of the transaction are looking out for themselves, and take what they tell you with a grain of salt.

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