When Money Trumps Need In College Admissions

Apr 24, 2014
Originally published on April 24, 2014 12:51 pm

At some schools, the admissions process itself can work against low-income students, according to Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College and a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges.

Nugent says during her tenure at Kenyon, there were low-income students at the bottom of the admissions list who sometimes weren't accepted so the school could make room for more affluent students.

"Approximately 90 percent of the class, we really did try to meet their full financial need," she says. "In order to do that, there was some segment of [the] class where we had to take into consideration: Do we have some students who can afford to pay?"

Nugent spoke with Morning Edition host David Greene and Maricela Oliva, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio's Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.


Interview Highlights

On need-sensitivity

Georgia Nugent: There are only a very few number of colleges which now or ever have been truly need-blind. The Ivies are in that category. ... What most colleges today are, they are what is called "need sensitive." It means that many colleges who have some resources — not enormous resources, but they are not impoverished — they do try to accept the class they would like to have, not taking into consideration financial need. But then, as you get toward completing the acceptance of the class and your dollars are running out, you have to begin to take into consideration need.

On merit aid

Georgia Nugent: What I call "so-called merit aid." And here's what it means: Let's say that your full tuition at your college is $20,000. So you could take $15,000 of your financial aid and offer it to one quite needy student. Or, you could take your same amount of resources and you could offer $5,000 in financial aid to three affluent students. So, in terms of the college's revenue, offering the large package to the single student nets $5,000 for the college. Offering the small sweetener to the affluent student nets the college $45,000.

On the paradigm shift in higher education

Maricela Oliva: We've really moved from a position where people are interested in helping really capable students by supporting them through financial aid to a position that says if you want to go to college, it's a personal as opposed to a societal benefit, so you need to bear, increasingly, the cost yourself. It's a very different situation, but we've created it ourselves because we are disinvesting from higher education.

On the difficult position of universities

Georgia Nugent: In some ways, I think it's defensible. They've got institutions where their resource base is declining. They have to somehow find a way to pay their bills to offer the education they want to offer, and consequently, they need to increase that net revenue.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We've been focusing the past few weeks on paying for college. Yesterday, we heard how hard it has become for low-income students to afford college. But for colleges, there's an important question of cost as well. In tight economic times, schools have to think about which students they can afford to admit. We spoke to two educators. Georgia Nugent is the former president of Kenyon College, and she's now a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges. Maricela Oliva is a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Both were the first in their families to attend college. Dr. Oliva explained how she went from humble roots in the border region of Texas to Yale.

MARICELA OLIVA: Certainly, my parents didn't know what college was because they hadn't been to college. They had been migrant workers. So purely by accident, I ended up going to Yale instead of UT-Austin. And I remember all of us sitting in the classrooms when the PA announcement comes over and says, you know, the Yale recruiter will be coming, or the Yale recruiter is here. Everybody rolled their eyes, like what the heck is Yale, and why should anyone want to talk to him? But out of embarrassment more than anything, the counselor at that time pulled people out and said, talk to him; it's embarrassing to have no one show up.

GREENE: Tell me how Yale helped you and supported you.

OLIVA: Well, one of the nice things about Yale and other Ivy League institutions at the time is that they had a need-blind admissions process. They still do.

GREENE: And we should remind people: That means you don't look at someone's need and their economic situation when you decide whether or not to accept them.

OLIVA: That's right.

GREENE: Dr. Nugent, let me turn to you. You were recently president of Kenyon College, a very prestigious, well-respected liberal arts college. Is Kenyon offering need-blind admissions today?

GEORGIA NUGENT: No, not entirely. There are only a very few number of colleges which have been truly need-blind.

GREENE: Because it's expensive to be able to make a commitment that we will decide who we want to accept, and we will get those students there, no matter what it costs.

NUGENT: Of course. And if you have limited resources, it's your responsibility, in many ways, to manage those resources effectively. Most colleges today are what is called need-sensitive. It means that many colleges who have some resources - not enormous resources, but are not impoverished - they do try to accept the class that they would like to have, not taking into consideration financial need. But then as you get toward completing the acceptance of a class and your dollars are running out, you have to begin to take into consideration need. So if I recall correctly, at Kenyon, about 10 percent of the class was admitted with, quote, "needs sensitivity" in mind. That is, there were some students we just could not afford.

GREENE: Let me just make me sure I understand this: 10 percent of the class was admitted with needs sensitivity in mind. What, exactly, do you mean by that?

NUGENT: That is, approximately 90 percent of the class - we really did try to meet their full financial need. In order to do that, there was some segment of class where we had to take into consideration: Do we have some students who can afford to pay?

GREENE: The students who you have to admit because they have greater means - more affluent students - does that mean admitting some students who might not be as qualified, but they're getting in because of their ability to pay?

NUGENT: In Kenyon's case, the answer to that was no. It was a question of just the absolute superstar kid you would like to have who has tremendous financial need, and maybe you just can't manage that.

GREENE: But there's another superstar kid who has greater means and...

NUGENT: Yeah. And I'm sure that's not true for all colleges.

GREENE: You're saying some colleges have to accept less-qualified students, too.

NUGENT: Probably some need to dig deeper. Yeah.

GREENE: And I've read about a really competitive environment where colleges are often saying, you know what? We can't offer as many full-tuition scholarships because what we need to do is offer discounts in tuition...

NUGENT: Right.

GREENE: ...to families that are actually more affluent, but to kind of persuade them to come to our college instead of another one.

NUGENT: That's right. What I call so-called merit aid. And here's what it means - let's say that your full tuition at your college is $20,000.

GREENE: OK.

NUGENT: You could take $15,000 of your financial aid and offer that to one quite needy student. Or you could take your same amount of resources, and you could offer $5,000 in scholarship aid to three affluent students. So in terms of the college's revenue, offering the large package to the single student nets $5,000 for the college. Offering the small sweetener to the affluent student nets the college $45,000.

GREENE: What is your reaction when colleges have to do that? I mean, is it defensible? Is it just the economic reality for some schools these days?

NUGENT: In some ways, I think it's defensible. You've got institutions where their resource base is declining. They have to somehow find a way to pay their bills to offer the education they want to offer and consequently, they need to increase that net revenue.

GREENE: Dr. Oliva, how are you reacting, hearing this?

OLIVA: We've really moved from a position where people are interested in helping really capable students by supporting them through financial aid to a position that says if you want to go to college, it's a personal - as opposed to a societal - benefit, so you need to bear the cost yourself. It's a very different situation, but we've created it ourselves because we are disinvesting from higher education.

And the other issue that I wanted to raise is that sometimes when you show the actual cost of a four-year institution, whether it's public or private - I mean, there's a kind of sticker shock that sometimes causes low-income students, even the very well-prepared students who are eligible for a selective institution, to choose to attend a less-costly, maybe a two-year institution.

GREENE: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about this because this is a trend we're seeing. There are more and more low-income students who are deciding on colleges that might be a mismatch.

OLIVA: Yes. And on the one hand you say, well, you're glad that they're starting it somewhere. But on the other hand, I'm anticipating that we will soon have a kind of transfer bubble, where a lot of the students who, because they're starting at a two-year, probably will not achieve that bachelor's outcome that they so want.

GREENE: Are we seeing a time when students with more means are benefiting more and more when it comes to applying for college?

NUGENT: Absolutely. Colleges are in much more competition with one another. There's a bidding war, essentially. Culturally, we need, as a society, to make a recommitment to education as a public good, and not just as the private good. And I feel pretty strongly that our colleges and universities also need to begin making more of a concerted effort toward this public good.

GREENE: Professor Oliva and Dr. Nugent, thank you both for your time. It was really nice to talk to you both.

NUGENT: Thank you.

OLIVA: Thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: That was Georgia Nugentm she's senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges; and Maricela Oliva, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.