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Preserving Need-Blind Admissions Comes at a Price at Grinnell

Published:  February 28, 2013

When it comes to private colleges enrolling and supporting low-income students, Grinnell College has been one of the best. Nearly a quarter of its students receive Pell Grants, and the lowest-income students have to take on only a relatively small amount of debt to receive a top-notch liberal arts education.

That’s why it is so disheartening to hear that Grinnell plans to become more aggressive in using so-called “merit” aid for the explicit purpose of recruiting wealthy students. According to college’s president Raynard Kington, this is the price Grinnell will have to pay for maintaining its need-blind admissions policy for the next two years.

Last year, Grinnell’s board raised alarms on campus when it announced that it was considering abandoning its costly policy of admitting students regardless of their financial need. But after months of heated discussions among students, faculty, administrators, and alumni, the board relented and agreed to allow the practice to continue for another couple of years. In return, however, the school must “find a way to curb growth in its discount rate (the percentage of sticker price provided by the college in aid, on average) and to reduce the share of its operating budget paid by the endowment,” according to Inside Higher Ed. They need to, in other words, bring in more students who can pay full freight.

Providing a little bit of institutional aid to reel in otherwise “full-pay” students has become a popular way to raise revenue. But can Grinnell go down this route without sacrificing its commitment to socioeconomic and racial diversity on campus? Kington says the school can, but history suggests otherwise.

In a 2009 study, entitled “Keeping Up With the Joneses: Institutional Changes Following the Adoption of a Merit Aid Policy,” Amanda Griffith of Wake Forest University looked at demographic changes that occurred at 93 private colleges that began offering non-need-based financial aid programs from 1987 to 2005. She found that within three to five years of introducing such programs, private colleges in the two top tiers, such as Grinnell, saw their share of Pell Grant recipients fall significantly. The creation of these programs also led to a reduction in the representation of black students at these schools, she discovered.

“It is worrisome, given the already low levels of representation of low-income and minority students at four-year colleges, to find that the introduction of a merit aid policy is associated with a decrease in the percentage of low-income and black students, particularly at the more selective institutions in the sample,” Griffith wrote.

Given Griffith’s findings, it may be a few years before we know whether Grinnell follows the same pattern. Let’s hope we can take Kington at his word and it doesn't – because Grinnell is one of a shrinking number of private colleges that have been doing things right.

It would be the ultimate irony if, in preserving need-blind admissions, the school makes it more difficult for low-income students to enroll. Be careful what you wish for, indeed. 

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