Admit it: There’s a problem

George Washington University’s admissions controversy symbolizes a deeper problem in our education system.

by Brian Reinken

Officials working at George Washington University’s admissions office have been misrepresenting the school’s admissions policy for years, according to GWU’s student newspaper.

GWU’s student newspaper, The GW Hatchet, broke the story last Monday. Although GWU has ostensibly followed a “need-blind” policy, its dean for undergraduate admissions recently revealed that accepted students can be downgraded to waitlisted status if school officials thought they needed more financial aid than their peers.

Need-blind admissions policies do not take into account an applicant’s financial status when determining whether that applicant will be admitted. Need-aware policies, on the other hand, factor in student finances or may even reserve admission for students who can pay the full cost of attendance.

The University of Minnesota’s admissions process is based on need-blind principles. George Washington University’s process, it’s now known, is not.

Studies indicate that 11 percent of GWU students qualify for Pell Grants. The national average is 27 percent. Furthermore, the need-aware admissions policy affects roughly 10 percent of GW’s applicants each year.

At the University, approximately 26 percent of students qualify for Pell Grants. Although socioeconomic diversity at the University is close to the national average, it is expected to increase due to the inadvertent applicant deterrent that is President Eric Kaler’s 2014-15 budget, which will increase out-of-state tuition by $1,000.

Technically speaking, GWU has no obligation to adopt a need-blind admissions policy. As a private institution, it’s run much like a corporation. Those who can’t afford to pay can’t play. And considering that the school’s tuition and fees cost $47,343 a year — the fourth-most expensive among private universities, according to U.S. News and World Report — there will be plenty who aren’t able to pay.

From a strictly economic standpoint, the decision makes sense. The school’s endowment is $1.3 billion a year, which pales in comparison to Harvard’s $32 billion. GWU simply cannot afford to provide its students with as much financial aid as some of its competitors.

Financially, the need-aware policy should disturb no one, then. Far more disconcerting is the fact that GWU, presumably because need-blind schools traditionally attract both more applicants and more alumni donations, deliberately misrepresented this policy.

It is when viewed from a moral perspective that the problem of need awareness becomes more demanding. Tuition is rising across the country, and more students are being forced to accept loans to merely finish college. As a direct consequence, graduates are entering the “real world” with a burdensome amount of debt.

Need-aware policies can be construed as a way to deter students from accumulating copious amounts of debt. If GWU were to eliminate its need-aware policy and start to accept students regardless of their financial status, it could be argued that the students who would otherwise have been excluded would only be forced, eventually, to struggle harder to work off their loans.

Morally, whether a university should effectively have the power to forbid its applicants from taking on loans is debatable. Complicating matters are the accusations hurled at need-aware schools. These are denounced as havens for the privileged, colossal ivory towers in which commercially aristocratic adolescents can ride to success on their parents’ money and connections.

Certainly, America’s educational system is under stress. Although education may be one of the few points on which Republicans and Democrats can rhetorically unite, “education” is a very vague term. Whether the two parties will be able to agree on how best to reform the system remains to be seen. For the moment, the skyrocketing costs and increasing student debt are precisely the causes of GWU’s admissions policy. If the American system were to function in such a way as to keep the price of education at an affordable level, there would be no need to distinguish between need-blind and need-aware systems.

GWU has updated its website to include an honest description of its admissions policy, but the policy itself isn’t going anywhere. Nor, technically, does it need to. GWU is by no means the only school in the United States that includes financial need in its admissions process. In all probability, then, the hullabaloo surrounding GWU will eventually fade into the background of the news and be forgotten. Debates on how to best reform higher education, however, will persist. And that is an issue that can’t be forever postponed.