Responses to the Proposed Changes to Wesleyan’s Need Blind Policy

Robert J. Alvarez, ’96
A Tenured Radical
Mytheos Holt, ’10
Estrella Lopez, ’07
Cristina Ruggiero, ’94

Robert J. Alvarez, ‘96
Statement on Proposed Financial Aid Changes

Zach Schonfeld ’13 invited me to offer a few thoughts on the proposed changes to Wesleyan’s financial aid policy, and how a similar situation was handled on campus in the past. I was one of the dozens who organized – and the hundreds who participated in – the protests in 1992 that successfully preserved need blind admissions at Wesleyan. I played only a small part, but I can report that 20 years later my participation in those protests remains perhaps the proudest moment of my time on campus.

I remember meeting night after night in the campus center, brainstorming what we could do to reverse the policy. I remember the day of the North College occupation, spending most of it in the second floor of what was then the WSA office writing press releases and trying to drum up interest in covering our action. I remember freezing my ass off while sleeping outside North College on that February night, until just before six when a few of us rose and headed downtown. At what was then Manhattan Bagel we warmed up while pouring over all the morning papers, seeing for the first time the coverage of our actions (remember there were no online papers back then).

What do I remember most of all, however? The fact that we won.

Our winning was the product of tremendous hard work, the likes of which will be required once again if a true need blind Wesleyan is to be preserved. Such work will need to be organized, thoughtful, realistic, and determined. It must resist the easy path of plugging into that part of Wesleyan’s culture that seems to be ever-ready to protest just for protest’s sake; rather, it must assemble a broad-based coalition the likes of which we were able to pull together back in 1992. It must remember, above all else, that the point is not to protest – the point is to win. Make sure the actions you plan lead you to that goal, rather than become the end themselves. Down one path lies successful change, and down the other lies potentially loud but eventually meaningless posturing. The latter may be cathartic, but the former is what counts.

Are we allowed to point out the obvious, namely that the scale of this crisis is driven in no small part by the unsustainable growth in tuition and fees over recent decades? There is irony in a higher education establishment that was complicit with – no, was guilty of – the practices that directly lead to the need for so much aid in the first place, now saying such aid levels are not sustainable. President Roth deserves credit for highlighting this issue, and his proposal to link future tuition increases to the growth of inflation is an admirable step in the right direction and long overdue.

At Wesleyan I majored in economics and government, and in the years since I have earned an MBA in finance from the Wharton School as well as the Chartered Financial Analyst designation. I mention this background to make clear that I am not someone who finds financial-based arguments unpersuasive. Math is unforgiving, and we will not be able to ignore it at Wesleyan no matter how hard we may try.

We are an institution of limited resources, and there is no shame in admitting as much. The shame comes, though, from how we balance competing priorities given those limits. For example, walking around campus and noticing the remarkable construction boom that has occurred since my time, it is hard not to conclude that not every administrator has held need blind in as high esteem as I believe most of the alumni do. For a school that has been crying poverty for decades while being one of the ten most expensive colleges in the country, our spending decisions sometimes appear confounding. I will admit guilt to not paying enough attention to the University’s financial condition over my years as an alumnus, something I aim to correct over the coming months. Perhaps there are other alumni that would likewise like to educate themselves?

Putting the numbers aside for now, what about the morality of these proposed changes? I am assuming that what has been reported is true, namely that Wesleyan will remain need blind up until a certain level of financial aid is spent, and that after that point an applicant’s ability to pay will be taken into account when deciding to admit or not.

Let us speak plainly, pushing euphemisms aside. Under such a system, certain applications might as well come with bank statements attached, right along with grades, test scores, and recommendations. How can we – alumni, students, faculty – stomach such a move? Should we find ourselves in a place where we can no longer afford a certain amount of aid to those whom we wish to admit, I could understand having to curtail some aid packages. I do not know if we are at that point now, but I freely admit that such a point exists. Being frank about our limited means, however, is a far cry from poisoning our admissions process, making a mockery of the self-serving rhetoric we offer prospective students about the type of community we hope to create. To not be able to meet everyone’s full need is a failure of our wallet; to alter our offers of admission based upon ability to pay is a failure of our character.

I have been on the receiving end of an admission offer I could not afford to accept. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was accepted to attend college early, effectively skipping my last two years. I did not attend that college, though, because my family could not afford it. While the school offered me some aid, it was far below what would have made attending a realistic choice for me at the time. Some may read this and see it as an endorsement of the new Wesleyan approach, concentrating acceptances on those they are sure will be able to attend. Allow me to disabuse you of that notion.

In what world would I, a teenager from a background of limited means, have been better served by a rejection letter at that time rather than the acceptance I received? I was able to understand the financial realities that both my family and the school faced. I was bitterly disappointed, but at the same time I was validated. The school, after all, had decided I was worthy – my promise confirmed, my aspirations endorsed. Two years later I applied to Wesleyan early decision and was accepted. Students from limited means know all too well how the odds are stacked against them; the least we owe them is an honest appraisal of their performance and potential, unencumbered by a peek at someone else’s checking account balance.

Shall I be blunt once again? The only reason I see to enact the changes in the manner that has been reported is to protect Wesleyan’s yield, or the number of admitted students who actually chose to attend. Admit too many students who choose to go somewhere else because they can’t afford it, and the yield will fall, providing a drag on Wesleyan’s ranking in publications such as US News. This is even more the case if other schools are also playing these games, which I gather they are. As someone who checks the rankings every year, hoping that we climb over time, I can say without hesitation that I don’t care if this causes us to fall. Trying to judge our applicants by their relevant merits is simply the right thing to do. Damn the consequences to the rankings; we are better than that.

A commitment to need blind admissions is essential to the character of Wesleyan as I understand it. Or at least it was. I sincerely hope that I won’t have to update my assessment of our character any time soon.

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A Statement from Tenured Radical

I think this is an excellent post, followed by excellent comments.  A small contribution from a former faculty member:

The problem with need-blind for university managers is not that it is too much, it’s that it is a volatile that makes long-range planning difficult to impossible. I remember this from my days back on a finance committee, where we looked at it almost every year.  You can “budget” for financial aid, but never know if you will meet your budget.  Wesleyan is currently in an austerity period, patterned on neo-liberal governmentality, where budget reductions are usually coupled to a rise in management costs and policy changes that make future budget planning more predictable.

That said, from my time on the Admissions committee, I know this: need-blind makes almost no difference in who is admitted. I high proportion of non-US nationals are full payers, for example, which is one reason why admissions officers from all schools — including Wesleyan — have been making those recruiting trips to China, Singapore, and other countries with emergent elites. Some people are already admitted because they are as good as the next person and they are full payers (one of the comments points to the way this works by simply looking at other information on the student’s background.)

However, need-blind admissions does make a big difference in who applies within the United States.  Students who are from working class, poor and immigrant families believe that they will not be discriminated against under a need blind system, so you get a larger pool of able candidates that make the school more diverse through US-based admissions pools.

The size of the endowment, however, continues to be small, not because alumni/ae don’t give, because Wesleyan relies on so much of its annual fundraising for its operating expenses, and did so for several decades prior to Roth’s tenure as president.  Austerity — which includes several years of deliberate capping of faculty salaries and raising the cost of benefits that has ceased to be necessary (last year there was a multi-million dollar surplus, but no raises in that year and lowball raises for senior faculty this year) — is a long range plan to grow the endowment by making other budget decisions that make Wesleyan’s costs easier to estimate in the coming years.  So it’s a little more complicated than it seems until you put many pieces of the puzzle together.

One more thing:  I predict Wesleyan faculty will *all* be teaching 3-2 in the coming years:  there is no other way that a curriculum that makes a three-year graduation possible can be mounted.  This will mean a mandatory course in the summer or in a J-term, as is currently the case at Williams.  Faculty have been moved in this direction already because the lack of raises has caused many to work a fifth course into their household budget just to keep up with inflation, and many have gotten used to teaching 5, or even 6 courses a year.  This has consequences for students, as does taking a bunch of talented people who have already had pressure-cooker lives to get to Wes and pressuring them to save 20% by compressing a four-year degree into three.  President Roth works incredibly hard, and always had:  my memory from a long ago profile is that he would get up at 4 a.m. to do the work necessary for this accelerated degree, and I know very few students who can even imagine doing that.

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Mytheos Holt ’10

Following my spontaneous expression of rage over Facebook regarding Wesleyan’s proposed decision to end Need Blind Admissions, one of the editors at Wesleying reached out to me and suggested I write a statement laying out my feelings. I honestly never expected to end up commenting on Wesleyan-centric issues again, especially considering how much I deliberately made people hate my views while on-campus, but if my voice can help raise the profile of this issue, I’m all too happy to lend it, and this time without any of my usual trolling.

For many students, I’m sure their opposition to this policy is grounded in the singular disdain for privilege that exists among students at Wesleyan. Those students are entitled to their opinion, and if it motivates them to fight this policy, then I welcome their opposition on whatever grounds. However, I’m sure it surprises no one that these aren’t my reasons. When I was at Wesleyan, I made no secret of my belief that the school would benefit from marketing itself to more privileged circles by cleaning up its image, emphasizing its prestige, and actually trying to compete in its own weight class with students like Williams and Amherst. While I was sympathetic in theory to the slogan “Keep Wes Weird,” I did not support the corollary that a lot of students seemed to want to attach (IE “Keep Wes a freak show”). Rather, I thought Wes could quite easily retain its eccentricity while still being seen as a “little Ivy.”

And it’s precisely because of that commitment that I have to oppose this policy. Because here’s the thing about Ivy League Schools – part of their prestige springs from the perception that they are meritocratic institutions. That’s not to say that the definition of “merit” involved is ironclad, given that most Ivy League schools employ legacy programs and affirmative action programs, but those programs are (thankfully) treated as dirty secrets rather than points of pride, and I’d like to think their influence has lessened with time. Moreover, two of the biggest items Wesleyan can emphasize in marketing itself are its quality as an educational institution, and the quality of the students it is teaching.

Both of those points are, at best, undermined and at worst, outright ruined by this proposed policy. When the Affirmative Action Bake Sale (in which I had some involvement) went up in late 2010, one of the points that liberal students raised to attack the students involved in the bake sale was that Wesleyan had no official affirmative action policy. This was a debatable point at best. Nevertheless, if Need Blind Admissions is ended, then I can categorically state that this will no longer be true. Rather, Wesleyan will have an affirmative action program in place for the rich. I have no objection to upper-class students going to Wesleyan, but they, not their parents, have to earn it. Furthermore, if Wesleyan makes it clear that the wealthiest potential students have a leg-up in getting into this school, then that will destroy the perception of the Wesleyan education as being in any way a collaborative enterprise among the best and brightest students. A lot of people involved in the Affirmative Action Bake Sale (myself included) believed race-based affirmative action to be unacceptable, but socioeconomic affirmative action to be genuinely helpful. Ending Need Blind Admissions would leave in place any unofficial race-based practices while cutting off access to the socioeconomically disadvantaged. In short, from our perspective, it’s the worst of both worlds. To quickly use the sort of rhetoric I might have used in my old column, it reduces Wesleyan’s entire educational experience to a veritable Safari of race and class tourism for Trust Fund Babies.

That is not an educational experience that I or, I suspect, most alumni would want to contribute our money toward. I could care less if my name is inscribed on the side of some sterile, unnecessary building, or if my donation goes to pay for another of the Godawful “Feet to the Fire” exhibitions. And I certainly don’t care if my donation will get me into a fundraiser with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. What I care about is making sure that the next generation of smart, independent minded students can have a place like Wesleyan to attend, where their attendance is earned by their grades, SAT scores, and proven leadership abilities, and not by the size of their parents’ pocketbooks.

More to the point, the fact that this is the approach the Wesleyan administration is considering is frankly, pathetic and unjust in every way. I realize the university is short on cash, but this “solution” to the problem is, in effect, forcing generations of students to surrender access to Wesleyan because the administration couldn’t control its own purse strings. The fact that the university is considering putting an end to Need Blind Admissions while retaining a “need blind” policy in architecture by remaining willfully blind to whether they need half the new buildings they want to build is a serious confusion of priorities.

More insulting still is President Roth’s decision to try and instill the idea of graduating in three years so that he can farm students for tuition more quickly while cutting off a sizable portion of the intellectual engagement and exploration that is key to the Wesleyan experience. Only in academia could people respond to financial negligence by cutting the services they provide, instead of trimming their own operations, cutting salaries, and firing people. It’s times like this that I wish Bain Capital – not the real Bain Capital, but the one portrayed by the Obama campaign’s attack ads – would buy Wesleyan, because a lot of people need to be fired.

To make a long story short, I stand completely with my fellow Wesleyan College Republican, Rob Alvarez, and am proud to be on the record opposing this policy. It’s rare that the Right and the Left agree on anything, especially at Wesleyan, but I also want to lend my full throated support to any activists who are taking steps to stop this flatly unjust policy from being enacted. As the song goes:

Fight for OLD Wesleyan
Never give in
Fight to the end when might and right shall win

Might and right (in both senses of the word) are on your side, activists. So keep fighting til victory crowns every man.
-Mytheos Holt ’10

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Estrella Lopez ’07

I cannot begin to express how disappointed I am in how this has all played out. This post makes it seem as though the move to losing need-blind status is something that “may” have to happen, but the article I just read from the Chronicle of Higher Ed makes it clear that this is already a done deal. While I disagree with this step, perhaps, had alums been fully invited to be part of the conversation I could have come to see the logic behind it and perhaps I could come to agree with it, or at least respectfully disagree with it. This did not happen.

Wesleyan knows how to reach me; whether it is to announce an event, ask for a donation, or for something completely inane like chronicling some recent alum’s job search, there is an email from Wes in my inbox almost daily. I have been an active volunteer, both when I was a student and over the past five years as an alum. Wesleyan asks me that I give my time, my money, my effort and my enthusiasm, and I answer that call and do so happily, because it is a place that I believe in. My passion for Wes is evident to anyone who speaks to me for more than a few minutes.

Given this, it is extremely disappointing that I had to find out that this was happening from a third party. Other than a quick line in an email send 3/1/2012 about Wesleyan’s Reaccreditation Self-Study, there was no hint that this was happening until last month, at which point, presumably this was already a done deal. Where was the communication on this vitally important matter when there was still a chance to do something about it? Where were the calls to fundraise letting people know that if $X weren’t raised then need-blind admissions might have to be sacrificed? We are constantly hit with artificial cries for urgency that we have to give by end of this challenge or during GOLD giving month, but here, where there was real urgency, with real consequences if we didn’t act, we instead got silence.

While I am extremely upset and saddened by this I won’t stop volunteering and I won’t stop giving, but the manner in which I do so will change. I used to give my gifts unrestricted, “to Wesleyan’s greatest need” but now I will be specifically directing them to financial aid. Giving an unrestricted gift was a sign of my trust and faith in the institution, but by not including alums in this vitally important conversation, Wesleyan has betrayed my trust. I encourage my fellow alums to do the same.

I recognize that the Wesleyan community can be difficult to work with; we are opinionated, we are vocal, we are passionate, we are tenacious, we demand excellence, but these qualities are Wesleyan’s strength! These are what makes Wesleyan the vibrant, wonderful place it is. Without the Wesleyan community, all you have is some buildings, don’t alienate us. If you truly believe in what you are doing, you shouldn’t have to do so in this secretive way, stand up for what you are saying, invite us to the conversation, allow us to have input before it is too late. It may be easier to do things without asking the community to weigh in, but it is not better. Do better.

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Cristina Ruggiero, ’94

I am profoundly disappointed to hear that Wesleyan will end ‘need blind’ admissions. As someone who works in higher education, I understand the challenges, the ‘amenities arms race’ that colleges and universities face. The plan to tie increases in tuition to inflation is admirable. However, by limiting need blind admissions, you are saying to students that those who cannot afford it have will have an even harder time trying to get in, since they will be competing against each other, whereas students without need will have a better shot at getting in, since they won’t be subject to the 90% cutoff. This is the message you are sending to students with limited financial needs, essentially, ‘you can apply, but your chances of getting admitted will be less than students who can pay. ‘

How will the admissions office truly make those decisions and parse out who is worthy to receive aid (and admission) and who is not? Students will think, ‘Should I really apply, because they might not admit me because I can’t afford to pay? How will I know that I got in (or not) because of that?’ Those are the questions wealthy students will never have to consider. And those students, of which I was one, a little more than 20 years ago, will not consider Wesleyan. They will see themselves as ‘second class students’ who are not really wanted or only wanted up to a ‘certain point.’

When I applied to Wesleyan, as a first-generation college student from a working class family, I applied in large part because of need blind admissions. I knew that whether my family had the means would not affect the school’s decision on whether or not to admit me. I would be evaluated on who I was and what I was capable of, and not what was (not) in my parent’s bank account. When I got that admission letter from Wesleyan, I knew that is where I wanted to be, even though I had gotten a full ride elsewhere. My parents warned me that this would be my responsibility because they could not help. I accepted the loans every year, had work study jobs every semester till I graduated, worked every summer and break instead of having internships like other students, who didn’t have to contribute financially to their college education. Sometimes it was hard being the only one who did not have spring break plans, a car, or a study abroad experience, but most times I didn’t feel different. I felt privileged to be at Wesleyan and took advantage of every opportunity presented to me. Wesleyan introduced me to a new world of opportunities and experience and gave me the confidence in myself that made me who I am today. While you may believe removing need blind admissions effectively for only 10% of an admission class will not significantly change Wesleyan, I am not so sure. For years I have worked in alumni admissions for Wesleyan, hoping to find students who are bright, curious, passionate and want to grow, and not be limited by their economic means. I imagine I will see even fewer of those students than I have seen in recent years. To transcend our socio-economic status has become harder and harder to do in the United States in recent decades, and unfortunately, by removing need blind admissions Wesleyan will only contribute to that widening divide.

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