Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Did you know that community colleges have need-blind admissions?

They do, but in discussions of need-blind admissions, they tend not to get mentioned.

The Boy’s college search is kicking into gear, so I’m relearning some of the lingo of the search.  He absolutely refuses to stay in-state, so any local options are off the table.  (At his age, I was the same way; I get it.)  We’ve been looking through websites and guides, doing Google searches, and, at my insistence, running Canadian tuition figures through exchange rate calculators.  (I think I’m gonna lose that one.) And I keep marveling that the folks who put these guides together clearly don’t have the first clue about how higher education works.

For example, for public flagship universities, it’s easy to find acceptance rates and average SAT/ACT scores, but hard to find them broken out by in-state/out-of-state.  (I’d be happy to be proved wrong on this.)  If you’re from, say, New Jersey, and looking at public universities in, say, any other state, that can be a challenge.  Averaging in-state and out-of-state together distorts both.

The real shock for me, though, is the concept of “gapping.”  As a society, we’ve decided that it’s okay that most students at most colleges don’t get enough help to attend without preposterous personal or familial financial strain.  There’s something deeply weird about that.  It’s to the point that there are lists of exceptions, most of which are hyper-wealthy themselves.

Here’s where Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work comes in handy.  In states like Tennessee, where free community college is a reality, it’s a short step from “need-blind,” which they clearly are, to “committed to meeting full financial need.”  It would be an American irony to see the list of “full financial need” schools forming a sort of U-shaped curve on the prestige hierarchy: the Harvards and the community colleges would be on the list, and the middle wouldn’t.  That seems a little on-the-nose as a critique of our culture, but there it is.

Most four-year schools are neither “need-blind” nor committed to meeting full need.  Instead, they reserve the right to offer preferential admissions to those who can pay cash on the barrel, and to offer less aid than most students actually need; making up the difference is the students’ problem.  If I were designing a system to frustrate the masses, I couldn’t do much better than that.  The difference between the aid offered and the aid needed is the “gap,” and the practice is called “gapping.”

As a mechanism for leaving talent on the table, it’s remarkably efficient.

Kudos to Tennessee and Oregon for calculating, correctly, that they have more potential talent in their citizenry than a “gapping” system would foster.  If we were serious, as a culture, the concepts of “need-blind” and “full financial need met” would simply be assumed.  That’s how you bring out the best.  I’m not blaming the colleges that don’t meet full need; it’s presumably a budget-buster for most.  But that’s sort of the point.

In higher ed policy circles, we hear a lot about a “skills gap.”  I’m more skeptical of that term than some, but I’m struck that for all that we hear about the skills gap, we don’t hear about gapping.  Stop the latter, and the former will fade quickly.  

Talent is need-blind.  If we want more of it, we know what we have to do.