The Illusion of Need-Blind Admission

According to the Admission Office, officers do not have access to financial aid materials for applicants, so they do not have explicit information concerning an applicant's financial situation. Too bad this system can only work in theory.
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By Maggie Tennis

In its efforts to attract the best candidates among above-average high school students, Brown advertises its "need-blind" admission status. As a university, we are particularly proud of this aspect of our admission process, which seeks to ensure that the Admission Office considers applicants without regard to their abilities to afford tuition. According to the Admission Office, officers do not have access to financial aid materials for applicants, so they do not have explicit information concerning an applicant's financial situation. We believe, therefore, that no applicant will be rejected from Brown due to an inability to pay full-price tuition. Theoretically, the admitted class -- except for international, transfer and resumed undergraduate students, who are not admitted on a need-blind basis -- will be more socioeconomically diverse as a result of such a policy.

Too bad this system can only work in theory.

No college or university can be truly need-blind so long as it operates a "holistic" admission process, because the only way to fully ignore an applicant's financial status would be to admit students solely on empirical data regarding academic merit. The holistic admission process purports to consider the whole personality, not just the grades and test scores, of an applicant. College applications that characterize the holistic process, like the Common Application, provide admission officers with so much information it is impossible to ignore or disregard the applicant's socioeconomic background. It contains questions that subtly expose an applicant's financial status.

The information the Common App asks applicants to provide can be used to mark an applicant's socioeconomic background. I'm not saying that admission officers are specifically looking for these markers in order to admit applicants who won't need financial aid. But they certainly could if they believed the University needed more students who could pay full price. Mainly, it is important to realize the goal of need-blind admission is thus compromised, and the aspects of an application that point to financial status have the potential to impact socioeconomic diversity on campus.

Say that an applicant is asked for his parents' educational information. Both parents are medical doctors. He is asked where he went to high school -- it was an elite boarding school in New England. He writes an essay that casually mentions his family's safari trip in Tanzania. A less advantaged applicant's parents never graduated from high school. The applicant went to her local public high school and can't boast of summer internships in New York City or house-building excursions in Bali as extracurricular activities. These examples may be extreme, but it is possible to infer which applicant would be in a better position to pay Brown's tuition in full.

There are other aspects of the holistic admission process that provide insight into an applicant's ability to afford Brown. On the application, an applicant lists parents or other relatives who attended Brown. The University prefers to admit the children of alumni. But what is the justification for this preference for legacies? Universities generally claim legacies have a greater impetus to give back to their alma maters, either with time or money. Add to that the probability that children of alumni will be better positioned to afford full tuition, given that one or both of their parents possess the career-booster that is the Brown degree and were themselves able to afford Brown as students long before need-blind admission policies were in place.

So what can be done? I do not advocate putting an end to the holistic admission process. If Brown were to judge applicants solely on grades and test scores, there would still be a great deal of inequality in admission. A wealthy student is better poised to score well on the SAT or ACT than a student from a lower income family. The wealthy student is able to afford better quality schooling -- either at a private school or because his public school is in an affluent area -- as well as tutoring and test preparation programs compared to the lower income student. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to compare GPAs and report cards across the wide range of school programs in the United States -- which is why standardized testing exists in the first place.

Still, our admission department can make adjustments that will, in turn, make the holistic admission process fairer. They could impose a strict limit on the number and type of extracurricular activities a candidate can list on the application. They could remove the question inquiring about parental educations and careers. They could even consider abolishing legacy preference.

Our admission department should be constantly reviewing its policies and procedures to maximize diversity of all kinds. We can continue to pursue greater diversity in existing areas while simultaneously committing to greater socioeconomic diversity. And the University should be moving faster toward a goal of full need-blind admission for all students, because the concept, in theory, is a good one. As long as we acknowledge both that holistic admission will never be truly need-blind and that the privileged members of our society will continue to be just that, we can make efforts to aid the underprivileged in gaining access to the high quality education Brown provides.

Maggie Tennis '14 summers on Nantucket and winters in the Swiss Alps, but refuses to disclose her financial status on paper.

Originally published in The Brown Daily Herald.

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