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Students Protesting Clark’s New Need-Aware Admissions Policy

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Students are protesting an admissions policy change that factors ability to pay into acceptance at Clark University.

This Thursday, administrators are holding a forum on the topic for members of the Clark community at the same time students plan to rally on campus.

In a Feb. 17 email to faculty and students, Clark University President David P. Angel said Clark's commitment to an accessible, affordable, and exceptional experience would not change.

But, “delivering on these values requires us to balance cost, accessibility, financial aid, and student debt,” he continued.

“Clark will continue to admit the vast majority of students on a need-blind basis, and all applications for admission will be read and evaluated without regard to family financial circumstances. At the end of the admissions decision-making process, after determining that we are reaching the limit of our financial aid budget, we will offer the opportunity to enroll at Clark to a small number of additional students on a need-aware basis. The primary criteria for admitting these last students will remain that of academic ability and fit with Clark,” Angel writes.

Students protest fraying of “need-blind” policy

A “need-blind” policy pays no heed to a prospective student's ability to pay during the admissions process.

“My first reaction to Clark's decision to get rid of their need-blind policy was honestly of being hurt,” said Ailey Wilder, a senior Sociology major who chalks up a university scholarship for allowing her to attend. “It is painful to think that if I applied now instead of four years ago, admissions would look at my FAFSA and say, 'She doesn't belong here.'”

Wilder said the decision for future applicants impacted current students. “It is affecting us in that the many of us who are here on large scholarship suddenly feel unworthy in the eyes of Clark administration. We suddenly feel like clients who don't pay enough.”

Senior English major Claire McDonald said her concern was with the message the policy sends to incoming students and whether it would hinder some from attending. She said a need-blind policy sent the message that academic and extracurricular performance and potential were of chief importance. “To eradicate this implies that the school in question is concerned not only with providing a comprehensive education to its students, but also with how much of a profit they are making from the students.”

Bryan Diehl, a senior Political Science major involved in Thursday's rally, said the action wasn't organized by any particular student organization or group. “We just recognized there is dissatisfaction among students,” he said.

In an email to GoLocal, Diehl said the main unifying factor was the feeling that administrators were placing the burden of the institution's financial difficulties onto the student body. “Basically in order to 'Keep Clark ‘Clark’' we have to diverge from what makes Clark ‘Clark’,” Diehl wrote.

On Tuesday, he said he hoped the frustration turned into a dialogue about bringing students into the decision process. “The level of student participation in the way these decisions are made is extremely low,” he said.

“At no point were students given an opportunity to voice their concerns,” McDonald said.

Nation's financial aid budgets stretched thin

David Hawkins, the director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, cites a move away from need-blind admission among colleges and universities across the U.S. over the last 20 years.

“The causal factors have tended to be that a combination of rising costs, diminishing state support for higher education, reduced investment/endowment income at many (particularly small, private) institutions, and the diminishing value of state and federal financial aid, has left institutions less able to cover the full need of students who are admitted,” Hawkins told GoLocal. “As a result, many institutions believe they can serve students better by ensuring that there is a balance of full-paying students and students who need aid so that the institutions can be sure that they can offer sufficient aid to those who need it.”

“While need-blind admission is still held out as a best practice, it's something that more institutions are finding difficult to do.”

When a prospective student is admitted to an institution but does not receive enough institutional and/or federal aid to cover the cost of attendance, the result is termed “gapping” and the student is left to either take out private loans or find another school. The average student loan debt per borrower now sits at $29,400.

Student aid budget has jumped at Clark

Citing a “large and ever-growing commitment to financial aid,” Angel tallied Clark's total undergraduate aid budget at $39.9 million, with around 91 percent of students receiving some financial aid to defray annual undergraduate tuition of $39,200.

“Over the decades, the combination of cost containment, philanthropic support from generous alumni and other donors, and a large financial aid budget have allowed us to balance, as best we can, our commitments to accessibility, affordability, and excellence. But this balance is now under great stress — not just at Clark, but across the majority of colleges and universities in this country. Since 2010, our expenditures on undergraduate financial aid have grown by $9 million (a 29 percent increase), putting added pressure on all other aspects of Clark's budget.”

Those challenging the policy have pointed to recent dormitory construction and accompanying flat-screen TVs as evidence of misplaced priorities.

The university reported $109.3 million in tuition and fees in its 2011 tax filings. That year, Clark reported total revenues of $151.6 million and expenses of $150.2 million resulting in a net revenue of $1,346,267.

Not exactly need-blind before

In his letter, Angel characterizes the university's past admissions process as “largely need blind.”

“If the financial need of all the students who decide to enroll at Clark is higher in any given year, we have simply increased the total financial aid budget and found a way to balance the remainder of our institutional budgets. Literally we do not know until students arrive in the fall what our financial aid budget will be. Some years we end up making painful cuts in services as a result,” according to Clark's president.

Given an economy still impacting families' abilities to pay, Angel said Clark's approach had become unsustainable.

In the NACAC's Statement of Principles of Good Practice, institutions are encouraged to “admit candidates on the basis of academic and personal criteria rather than financial need,” and to “meet the full need of accepted students to the extent possible, within the institutions' capabilities.”

Are need-blind admissions a unicorn?

Basic financial constraints, however, mean most schools consider ability to pay at some point in the admissions process.

“You need to go back and take a look at what the transaction is between a college and student,” said Peter Van Buskirk, an author and consultant and founder of the online resource Best College Fit. With admission decisions first and aid awards second, “it's become a business decision. And it's a business decision that many elite institutions don't like to acknowledge.”

“In order to be need blind, you have to theoretically meet the need of every student.” Offering an acceptance letter while severely gapping a student, “the student has really been denied the ability to attend,” contends Van Buskirk.

“The best fit for a student is the place that values them for what they have to offer.”

Schools actively recruit 'full-pay' students

In a 2013 survey of college and university admissions directors by Inside Higher Ed, conducted by Gallup, 42 percent of respondents surveyed from public colleges said full-pay students were targeted for increased recruiting; and 56 percent from private colleges said the same.

Fully 41 percent of private admissions directors who responded said the percentage of full-pay students was either “somewhat” or “very important” to the evaluation of their job performance.

“Overall trend is that relative few private (colleges) are need blind, and it's more likely to move away than toward this policy,” said Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed. “If you don't promise full aid, the reason is to prioritize admitting students who can afford to pay (so you aren't scrambling for them later).”

“The real issue is a lack of transparency in the admissions process,” said Van Buskirk, a former admissions director at a university that falsely claimed to be need blind.

For Wilder, the issue reflects a change in the way the university views students. “Clark is not a business. It is a non-profit liberal arts university. The point of this institution is to serve its student body.”


Related Slideshow: Central MA Colleges & Universities with the Highest Student Debt

Seven in 10 college seniors (71%) who graduated last year had student loan debt, with an average of $29,400 per borrower, according to a new report released by the Institute for College Access and Success.

According to the Institute’s Project on Student Debt, the average student debt in Massachusetts is $28,460, but what about the state's individual institutions? Check out the slides below to see the average debt graduates are accruing at colleges and universities in Central Massachusetts. (Not all schools self-reported student debt; if not, they are not in the slideshow). 

Note: All data is based on four-year or above institutions for students graduating in the 2011-2012 academic year. Worcester Polytechnic and University of Massachusetts Medical School are not included in the data below, because they did not report the average debt of their graduates.

Prev Next

#7 Worcester State Univ.

Average Student Debt: $20,449

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 74%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 20%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 861

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 3,901

In-State Tuition and Fees: $7,653

Total Cost of Attendance: $21,585

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: 21%

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#6 Clark University

Average Student Debt: $25,175

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 91%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 15%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 539

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 2,218

In-State Tuition and Fees: $37,350

Total Cost of Attendance: $46,200

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: 20%

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#5 Holy Cross

Average Student Debt: $26,567

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 55%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 16%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 692

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 2,872

In-State Tuition and Fees: $41,488

Total Cost of Attendance: $54,358

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: 16%

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#4 Nichols College

Average Student Debt: $30,890

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 89%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 29%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 278

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 1,116

In-State Tuition and Fees: $30,400

Total Cost of Attendance: $43,315

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: 34%

Prev Next

#3 Assumption College

Average Student Debt: $34,579

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 81%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 29%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 485

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 2,090

In-State Tuition and Fees: $32,545

Total Cost of Attendance: $45,830

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: 18%

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#2 Becker College

Average Student Debt: $44,596

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 95%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 33%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 239

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 1,400

In-State Tuition and Fees: $28,490

Total Cost of Attendance: $42,710

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: 48%

Prev Next

#1 Anna Maria College

Average Student Debt: $49,206

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 86%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 39%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 165

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 803

In-State Tuition and Fees: $29,860

Total Cost of Attendance: $42,930

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: 38%


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