In my September 25 blog post, “College Rankings Scandals” I described how George Washington University (GW) had, for over a decade, altered the data it reported to the government and to U.S News and World Report. In an effort to improve its U.S. News ranking, GW inflated the class ranks of the students it admitted. Late last month, GW found itself at the center of yet another scandal — this one involving a misrepresentation of its admissions process as being “need-blind”, when, it is actually “need-aware”.
The revelation, which was reported by the college’s student newspaper, prompted negative reactions from current students and alumni. Yet, in order to fully understand the extent of the university’s affront, one must first understand what the terms “need-blind” and “need-aware” mean. Need-blind is an admissions policy in which admissions decisions are made without consideration of whether applicants will need financial aid. Need-aware is a policy in which admissions decisions include consideration of applicants’ ability to pay.
While need-blind used to be the standard at many institutions, the recession and its effect on colleges’ endowments led numerous schools to adopt a need-aware policy. Today, there are only a small number of colleges whose endowments are large enough for them to be need-blind.
In the case of GW, newly-hired associate provost for enrollment management, Laurie Koehler, explained that need is not considered in the first round of reading applications. But before a final decision is made, GW looks at its financial aid budget and determines which students it can afford to accept, and which it can’t. Students who qualify for admission but who require more financial aid than the university can offer are waitlisted, and students who may be “borderline” in terms of admission but who can pay full price are admitted.
Koehler stated that GW waitlisted about ten percent of its 22,000 applicants in 2012. Less than one percent of waitlisted students were later accepted.
While some applauded Koehler for her transparency, others criticized GW for its dishonesty. In fact, only five days before the story was published in the student newspaper, an admissions officer told prospective students and parents that financial need is not considered in the admissions process. Additionally, GW’s undergraduate admissions website stated, “Requests for financial aid do not affect admissions decisions.” The website has since been changed and now explains GW’s need-aware policy.
One would hope that most colleges are more upfront about the role financial need plays in their admissions decisions. After all, the college admissions process is confusing enough without providing the type of misleading information that GW has.