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Book of Matthew: Debate over admissions needs more detailed discussion

Published: September 23, 2010
Section: Opinions


GRAPHIC BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

I do not usually play the role of campus media critic in my columns, especially since I am part of a major campus media outlet and think rather highly of it. Recently, though, I’ve been disappointed by coverage of the proposed change in admissions policy that will require some future Brandeis applicants to be judged on a “need-sensitive” basis, rather than the university’s current “need-blind” policy. In particular, I take issue with both the Justice and The Hoot editorial boards, who have left much to be desired in their editorials on the subject. It is unfortunate that the two groups of students on campus who are best equipped to explain this proposal failed to do so satisfactorily.

So, not having that busy of a week, I decided to pick up the slack. In order to clear things up, both for myself and for our readers, I met with Professor Steven Burg (POL), chair of the Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid, and Vice-President for Enrollment Keenyn McFarlane, about the proposal.

Here’s how the system works now:

All Brandeis applicants (excluding foreign and wait-listed students) are considered under the university’s “need-blind” policy. This means that Admissions judges each applicant’s eligibility without looking at financial information. It doesn’t matter whether an applicant is capable of paying full tuition or can’t muster a cent; as long as they meet the rest of the university’s requirements, they are admitted. (In contrast, under a “need-aware” policy, applicants are denied admission if the school to which they are applying feels that their inability to pay tuition presents a financial burden.)

It is only after all students for the incoming class are accepted that Financial Services puts together financial aid packages for those who need them (“need” is determined by FAFSA and guidlines set by the Department of Education). This, however, can present a problem. Since the university only has so much money to offer students, and since it has no way of knowing how much each student needs until after they are accepted, these students face what McFarlane called the financial aid “gap.” For example, if FAFSA determines that a student needs $20,000 per year, the university may only give out $10,000 in an effort to save money for other students. As a result, some students who receive financial aid are still unable to afford a Brandeis education and instead attend schools that offer them more money.

In an effort to remedy this problem, the Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid recommended that the university adopt a “need-sensitive” admissions policy for some applicants. “Need-sensitive” represents the gray area between “need-blind” and “need-aware.” Basically, under such a policy, an applicant’s financial information would not solely determine his acceptance decision, but it would factor in with all of the other criteria universities use.

Here’s how the new policy will work:

When the university builds a class, it ranks its applicants in a list, starting with the most desirable. Admissions then determines the number of applicants whose financial need it can meet in full. All students who fall below that point on that list are judged under the “need-sensitive” policy and the university takes their finances into account when filling the remaining slots in the class. Burg used this example: If 2,500 students apply, 2,300 will be judged on “need-blind” basis and will have their needs met in full if they are accepted. The remaining 200 will be judged on a “need-sensitive” basis, and may or may not have all of their needs met, depending on how much money the university has left over. Under this new system, both McFarlane and Burg claim that Brandeis would still be able to advertise itself as a “need-blind” institution.

The Hoot and the Justice editorial boards have two very different takes on this issue, neither of which, unfortunately, gets the whole picture.

In its Sept. 3 editorial, titled “The Brandeisian dream,” The Hoot editorial board asserts that “the nation’s financial crisis has, once again, caused Brandeis to reconsider our priorities.” It is against the principles of social justice, the board says, to deny applicants deemed by Admissions as “too needy.” While admitting that other ways of saving money—such as academic cuts—are also undesirable ways of improving finances, the board still claims that it is better to make cuts elsewhere than to enact a “need-sensitive” policy. The board then warns of the ill effects of a Brandeis class “populated after a certain limit only by the well-to-do and fortunate,” adding that it “undermines the very notions of diversity and acceptance.”

The Justice editorial board takes the opposite position in its Sept. 7 editorial, titled “Admissions change is favorable.” Claiming that “minor negative consequences” are “greatly outweighed by the benefits offered by the revised process,” the board says that the change will give more students better financial reasons to attend Brandeis. The board also points out that the new proposal will not save money so much as it will allocate it more wisely, in a way that will still allow Brandeis to keep its “need-blind” status. In its Sept. 21 editorial, titled “Executive Board stance is misinformed,” the board reiterates these statements, and also mentions that foreign and wait-listed students have been considered on a “need-aware” basis for some time.

The Hoot editorial board ignores several of the better aspects of the proposal. The assertion that “need-sensitive” admissions are an affront to social justice is a bit of an overstatement, and it involves two flawed assumption: First, that when judged on a “need-sensitive” basis, students who have better finances will always be chosen over those who do not, and second, that students who, for whatever reason, are lower on Brandeis’ desirability list tend to have fewer financial resources than those higher up.

In fact, when I asked McFarlane about the first assumption, he said that there are many potential cases in which Brandeis will choose a less wealthy student out of the “need-sensitive” category. He pointed out that Brandeis selects its students according to multiple criteria—high school rank, grade point average, extracurricular activities, special skills or accomplishments, and standardized test scores, just to name a few. As a result, it is difficult to find two applicants who have qualifications and life stories so similar that the only difference between them is finances. McFarlane said that if a student in the “need-sensitive” category is desirable, the university will accept them. Since Financial Services will still have money left over after meeting the needs of “need-blind” students, it will still try to offer accepted “need-sensitive” students aid packages until the money runs out.

And while it may be true on a large scale that wealthier students tend to have better academic and extracurricular qualifications than their less wealthy peers, this is not a hard and fast rule. For this reason, one cannot take the approximately 2,500 students who apply to Brandeis (a miniscule percentage of the total number of college applicants nationwide) and expect all of the less desirable students to need more financial aid. True, under the new proposal some of the less desirable students may not be accepted—or may not be able to afford Brandeis if they are—when Financial Services runs out of money. But that sort of thing happens all the time under the current system, except this time there are very qualified students who must look for schools elsewhere because of Brandeis’ inability to aid them. The Hoot editorial board may be worried about a future of increasingly wealthier Brandeis classes, but they need only leave the office and look at current students to see that this sort of imbalance already occurs. The new system may actually be able to remedy that.

The Justice editorial board at least mentions some of the negative aspects of this proposal, though it still glosses over one very important part that ought to have given it pause. The board appears to have accepted, in fact, even been pleased by the university’s decision to continue to advertise as “need-blind.” Given that they interviewed Professor Burg, this is not surprising. When I asked him about the decision to keep advertising in this way, he said: “That’s not my problem.”

Burg, to be fair, probably doesn’t play much of a role in university advertising. Still, it is troubling that so many have accepted our longstanding dishonesty in describing our admissions policy. It’s bad enough now to say that we are a “need-blind” university when foreign and wait-listed students are judged based on finances. To shift further away from a “need-blind” policy without so much as a footnote is absurd. No matter which system we use to judge applicants, some will be denied a spot at this university, and they deserve to know the reason why.

Though both editorial boards have spent the last few weeks acting as if the proposed change is in question, the truth is that Admissions plans to go forward with the recommendations starting with next year’s first-year class, according to McFarlane. So it is a little ridiculous to be debating a change that is not even in question. But I won’t kid myself. Editorial boards are stocked with opinionated people and, as an opinionated person myself, I respect their desire to make their positions heard. I would only ask that if we are going to continue a debate on this topic, it ought to be an informed debate, one that serves to educate us about all of its aspects instead of cherry-picking through them. That way, if a prospective Brandeis student ever asks us about his or her chances of being accepted by this university, we will be able to provide an honest answer.