Need Blind — Or Serving Low Income Students?

August 16, 2010

Today’s Inside Higher Education brings the news that Johns Hopkins University is moving towards need-blind admissions.  That’s good news, no?

Earlham recently went the other way: we were need blind and now we are not.  We came to think that being need blind was not the most important consideration in financial aid.  Instead, the most important principles of financial aid, we believe, are (1) whether we in fact serve significant percentages of low-income students and (2) whether we met their need with our financial aid packages.  We came to realize that because we were enrolling significant percentages of low income students, we were “gapping” too many students — providing them with inadequate financial aid packages, ones that didn’t fully meet their need.

As we gave up being need-blind, we also committed ourselves to continuing to enroll significant percentages of low-income students.

One way to see whether a college is, in fact, enrolling significant percentages of low income students is to look up the percentage of its students who receive federal Pell grants, which in general are available only to students from families with incomes below about $40,000.  You can do that for any college or university by going to the website for the Institute for College Access and Success, www.college-insight.org.

In 2007-08 (the last year for which comparable data are available, Earlham’s Pell percentage was 19%; Johns Hopkins was 9%. And we intend to keep our Pell percentage that high.

Most of the colleges and universities that are need-blind have Pell rates that are 10% or lower.  It’s easy to be need-blind if you do not actually enroll many low-income students, but much harder if you do.

I believe that colleges and universities that really want to contribute to the hard work of making higher education accessible to all young men and women should put less focus on being need-blind, and more on (1) enrolling significant percentages of low income students and (2) fully meeting their need.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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