Higher Ed

Did Needs-Blind Admission Create the College Debt Crisis?

As quiet as it’s kept, need-blind admissions has not usually meant that the applicant is freed of worrying about need.


Not so long ago, with racial preferences were increasingly on the ropes after the ’90s, implementing need-blind admissions was one of the handiest ways for a university to Do The Right Thing. Schools with need-blind admissions don’t take an applicant’s ability to pay tuition into account when making admissions decisions. This means a student can’t be turned away just because her parents can’t afford the tuition.

If it wasn’t going to be as easy as it used to be to “take race into account” in admissions, then at least no one would be turned away from consideration because they couldn’t pay the freight. No one—the new policy was race-neutral to boot.

The problem is that need-blind admissions has ended up stoking the student debt crisis we’re now so worried about.

As quiet as it’s kept, need-blind admissions has not usually meant that the applicant is freed of worrying about need. As of 2012, for example, only about 60 schools, with the biggest endowments, were able to follow up need-blind admissions with paying students’ way through four years. Typically, despite schools’ efforts to accommodate to the needs to which their admissions procedure is now blind, the students are expected to find much of their tuition and fees somewhere else. Beyond lucking into a scholarship, of which there are only ever so many to go around, that means loans.

There has been an almost Orwellian artfulness in the way need-blind admissions policies are sold. An assurance that “traditional sources of financial aid” will be part of a package implies some vaguely specified pot-of-gold “source” the school has access to. But in fact those “sources,” often worded as part of a “comprehensive” financial aid “program,” typically involve good old-fashioned federal loans.

And beyond that, even these loans often end up leaving students short of what’s really required to get through, in which case they often take out private loans offering more onerous conditions. In sum, “need-blind” admissions, summoning a mental image of the coal miner or bus driver’s daughter striding her way across the college green, quite often leaves that daughter 60 or 70 thousand dollars in debt.

The schools can’t help it. They have the best of intentions, but especially in these times—and really, in any times—only the flushest of schools can pay a student’s way toward a B.A. No university could stay in business giving a free ride to any more students than they already do, much less all students whose parents make a less than generous income.

The big bad scenario need-blind admissions were supposed to eliminate was the student who was disqualified from consideration by a university because her parents didn’t make enough money. But the question bears asking: Is a student winding up with a crushing debt burden really a better situation than that one?

In broad view, need-blind admissions is one more chapter in the story of American universities’ attempts at egalitarianism always creating as many problems as they solve.

They said the SAT will smoke out intelligent students from humble circumstances. But wait—what’s intelligence anyway? Plus, high-income people can afford coaching. Throughout the land, calls arise to scrap the test.

Racial preferences? OK—for a while, but not a long one, because whites feel discriminated against. And besides, doesn’t it require lowering standards? And wait—what are standards anyway?

And now need-blind admissions, which leaves students of modest income with debt that keeps their incomes modest.

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Note also that the current calls for racial preferences to be replaced by class preferences are calls for more need-blind admissions, and therefore more debt. Few will be heartened by the fact that the debt will oppress race-neutrally.

It is hard to avoid considering why America requires a college degree for so many things at all. Shouldn’t a four-year college education be a choice made by students who actually yearn for a dunking in the liberal arts? Only since the GI Bill has it seemed natural to us that the middle manager, the accountant and the small-business owner all have bachelor’s degrees.

But don’t count on a real discussion about that. One suspects we’re stuck with the idea of a B.A. as a rite of passage just as we’re stuck with the QWERTY keyboard—it’s too hard to imagine any other way. Besides, like knowing some French or making sure not to say “irregardless,” having a B.A. is a class marker in America. Who among us is prepared to dismiss the pride a person has in being the first in their family to go to college?

However, let’s be under no impression that once universities have extended their quest for students of just that kind, we’ve gotten past the nasty old SAT and those rabble-rousing racial preferences and arrived at true justice. Need-blind admissions acknowledge students’ obstacles—and sweetly leave them with new ones.