University admissions should not consider income

Credit: Celia Ludwinski/Assistant Photo Editor Credit: Celia Ludwinski/Assistant Photo Editor
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With the economy slowly spiraling into its current downturn, unemployment rates rising, and university endowments across the country in less stable states than in previous years, the fact that colleges are looking more favorably on applicants who can pay their own way shouldn’t be surprising. Sure, we’d all like it if every college or university was need-blind, or if they were willing to take in students solely on basis of talent, but the reality is far from ideal.

While no school has gone so far as to openly state that applying for financial aid hurts a student’s chances of admission, officials are divided as to how to admit the students that they want and still remain financially sound. According to a recent New York Times article about aid in universities, some colleges have opted to shift money from financial aid to something called “merit aid” as a way of offering a compromise. While financial aid has the connotation of being used to help families who would incur monetary difficulties by sending their child to school, merit aid is money that is awarded to students based on talent, regardless of financial background. Sound good? The bottom line is that, basically, while some students from affluent families may no longer qualify for financial aid, they can still soften the blow on their parents’ bank accounts by ranking up a few thousand dollars in merit aid instead.

The idea of merit aid is sound in theory. After all, aren’t we trying to make America into a meritocracy, where everyone has the job or place in life that their hard work has earned them? It seems like giving students aid based on raw talent is what scholarships have been about from their inception. However, the way that this merit aid is put into practice could undermine its mission.

For example, let’s say that a university has two applicants vying for one spot in its freshman class, both of whom are equally qualified for admission. One is from a family that could afford to send their student to school without going into debt, while the other would need a full-ride scholarship to attend. Using the guidelines of merit aid, the university could offer both students the same sized scholarship, which would probably be less than half tuition. The student from a wealthy background could go to school on that amount, as well as bring in money from tuition payments. However, the student in need of a full scholarship would be forced to look elsewhere unless their family went into substantial debt.

This way, some universities are avoiding having to pay out bigger scholarships and are still saying that they admit students only on basis of their “talent.”
The reasons for doing this, while officials admit that it at first sounds “immoral,” are simple. If the college isn’t bringing in enough money, then “the quality of education declines for everyone.” So, it makes the choice simple: Would you rather that you went to school with smarter peers or that you had a better education?

Colleges need to be honest with potential students. As a veteran of the application process, I know how hard it was to see letters in the mail that looked suspiciously paper-thin, especially from dream schools. The applications process is long, arduous, and, quite frankly, nerve-wracking enough already without the uncertainty about being refused admission because you checked off the box for financial aid. While some admissions officials have cited not wanting to scare people away from asking for financial aid as one of their main reasons for not addressing this issue, if I were applying for college now, I’d want to know what was going on.

Students put hard work into their applications for college, whether it’s answering all of those pesky “Supplemental Essays” that are tacked onto the Common Application or collecting just the right blend of recommendation letters from their teachers to show off their skills. They deserve to not be kept in the dark about why they weren’t offered admission, but rather informed beforehand of all the factors playing into selection.

As to various admissions departments’ fears: Would it really hurt to be more transparent to their application pool about admissions processes? While it’s always difficult being rejected from a college, hopeful students can cope with it better if they understand all the considerations that went into judging their application.
That is not to say that all hope is lost for those students without copious means or discretionary incomes. If the economic downturn continues, it will most likely mark the start of a trend wherein talented students begin to attend lesser-known or less prestigious schools, upping the competition for good grades there as well as keeping their bank accounts (mostly) in the black. That means graduating near the top of their class with little or no debt from student loans.

It will definitely be something to watch in the future: to see whether tomorrow’s leaders come from America’s most prestigious Ivies or from small colleges made famous by their presence. As for now, let’s hope college admissions offices become more honest about their selection processes and let the term “need-blind” really mean just that.