GWU Admissions and the Economics of Higher Ed

Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic has a story on the revelations that George Washington University rejected applicants on the grounds that they would have required financial aid. Apparently the university had advertised itself as “need-blind” in its admissions policies, but in fact the admissions office ended up rejecting marginal needy applicants in favor of marginal tuition-paying applicants in order to balance the books.

I have a couple of problems with the way Weissmann editorializes on this story. First, he tries to put GWU’s practices in a better light:

Some schools have openly defended this approach by arguing that it allows them to offer fuller financial-aid packages to the lower-income students they do admit. That’s the line GW is adopting now, and it may or may not be true. At the very least, their approach is less ethically disturbing than the widespread practice of “gapping,” where schools admit students on a need blind basis, but frequently award them a financial aid package that’s too small, sometimes with the express purpose of discouraging them from attending. Kids who fail to take the hint just sink deeper into debt.

And just why is GWU’s lying about its admissions policy less “ethically disturbing” than otherGWU schools’ practices of letting needy students themselves decide whether to come or not? One practice is a fraud or very near a fraud; the other practice “discriminates against” non-paying customers in the same way that a Jaguar dealer is likely to “discriminate against” me. In Weissmann’s view, policies that refrain from engaging in paternalism toward needy applicants (“you really shouldn’t take on this much debt, and so we won’t give the choice to”) are ethically more “disturbing” than fraudulent policies.

Then there’s this:

Finally, this incident is also symptomatic of a wider sickness in higher education: the mania for prestige. Even while it’s freezing out poorer qualified applicants, the university continues using “merit aid” to recruit desirable students who might be able to pay their own way. GW isn’t alone in that practice. It just got caught covering it up.

Wait, what’s wrong with merit aid again? I’ve seen proggy types crusading against it here and there, but I haven’t seen anyone even bother to make a real case against it — to them anything that doesn’t overtly maximize the well-being of the poor is wrong, I suppose. Let’s remember that we live in a world of resource constraints. Universities operate in a competitive environment and have to at least break even in order to finance facilities, faculty, and staff. It’s wishful thinking to suppose that they will be completely blind to the ability and willingness of their customers to pay. There’s every reason to think that if a university did operate on a completely need-blind basis, unless a generous benefactor insisted on such a policy, it would enjoy fewer resources, fewer faculty, smaller facilities, and be able to admit fewer students. How do poor students benefit from that outcome?

In my own case, I was from a poor family and qualified for full financial aid: a 100% free ride, work-study, Pell grants, and all the rest. However, for the last three years of my undergraduate education, I actually got a merit scholarship that covered everything. If you’re a student from a poor – or perhaps, especially, a middle-income – family, and you want to go to a private college, you need to count on going to a college that is a little bit below your ability level. You’ll be one of the big fish in the little pond helping to drive up the college’s scores and attracting the applicants. That’s what you’re giving them in exchange for their ignoring your inability to pay. You can still get a great education and have plenty of opportunities ahead of you, if you have the right attitude about it.

If you think the poor in America don’t get a fair shake, I agree with you. But let’s not put the onus on the university system to make up for everything that’s wrong with the American political economy. It’s the responsibility of policy makers to ensure a legal framework in which all can succeed. The broader point is that focusing on equality of opportunity generally means less opportunity, period. Those with the least opportunities often benefit from a framework that allows others to get more opportunities.

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