Wednesday, June 29, 2016

“Need Blind”

Community colleges practice need-blind admissions.  It would be lovely if we’d get credit for it.

Haverford College, a selective liberal arts college near Philadelphia, announced this week (with some hand-wringing) that economic pressures have forced it to abandon “need-blind” admissions.  In other words, for some fraction of the seats at Haverford, the ability to pay full freight will count in an applicant’s favor.  The IHE article mentions the possible negative impact on economic diversity at Haverford.  

And then I looked at the numbers.

List price for a year at Haverford is $66,490 and climbing.  For four years, that’s over a quarter of a million dollars.  And right now, only 56% of Haverford’s students receive financial aid.

I had to read that one twice.  $66,490 a year, nearly half are paying list price, and that’s _before_ reducing economic diversity.

Alrighty then.

Without looking at need whatsoever, then, we’re supposed to believe that nearly half of the best applicants to Haverford come from families that can afford to put down at least $66,490 per year per student without help.  

That’s not so much “need-blind” as “reality-blind.”  That is not a representative sample of academic talent.  It simply is not.

Meanwhile, every community college in America proudly continues its tradition of need-blind admissions, even though nobody calls it that, and we get no credit for it.

Some high-profile stories read differently from here.  The Fisher case -- “Becky With the Bad Grades,” as Twitter alertly termed it -- is of no practical interest here; we take all applicants, and always have.  When you accept everybody, you don’t have to engage in debates about on which bases it’s reasonable to exclude.  We don’t exclude.  The debate is moot.

Discussions of “need-blind” admissions typically get framed as if need-blindness is the exclusive province of the ever-shrinking elite: Harvard, Princeton, and not many more.  But that’s simply not true.  Every community college in America is need-blind, as are many four-year public colleges.  Good luck finding that mentioned in any of the press coverage, though.

“Need-blindness” only counts when “need” is the exception.  Brookdale charges less than one-tenth what Haverford does for a year of full-time study, yet its financial aid percentage is about the same.  Instead of getting credit for affordability and a genuinely remarkable “bang for the buck” for both taxpayers and students, we get left out of discussions of “need-blind” admissions because, well, you know.

That’s blindness, of a sort, but not the good kind.

A truly need-blind education might involve, say, making sure that per-student funding is equivalent across sectors.  It might involve ensuring that the sector that serves more students than any other doesn’t have to rely on a majority of adjunct faculty.  It might involve taking seriously the prospects of mandated transferability, national support for OER, and a really aggressive national push for Universal Design in instructional materials.  It might even involve having a really honest and serious discussion about the work that “you know” is doing a couple of paragraphs above.  Those words are carrying more weight than we generally like to acknowledge.

In the meantime, I’ll shed no tears for Haverford.  It’ll be fine.  And I think I’ll start referring to our “need-blind” admissions in public, every chance I get.