Report: George Washington University misrepresented admissions policy

Student newspaper says university had policy of wait-listing lower-income applicants during second round of admissions

George Washington University described its admissions policy for the first time as "need aware" and not "need blind" as the school had previously indicated.

George Washington University’s admissions office has admitted it has been employing a “need-aware” admissions policy, in which it may favor applicants who do not need financial aid. But according to an article in the university’s student newspaper, the GW Hatchet, top GW officials have been misrepresenting this policy for years.

In a 2011 article in the GW Hatchet, the dean for undergraduate admissions, Kathryn Napper, said that despite an increasing number of schools becoming need-aware, "We're still need-blind." Until last weekend the undergraduate admissions page for the university said, “Requests for financial aid do not affect admissions decisions.

On Monday in the GW Hatchet, senior associate provost for enrollment management Laurie Koehler called the school’s admissions policy for the first time “need-aware,” meaning that “students who meet GW’s admissions standards, but are not among the top applicants, can shift from ‘admitted’ to ‘waitlisted’ if they need more financial support from GW,” the article said.

These types of admissions decisions affect up to 10 percent of the university’s 22,000 applicants every year, according to the GW Hatchet.

Koehler countered the article with a statement on GW’s website, explaining, "It is important to note that consideration of need occurs at the very end of the admissions process.”

The first round of applications, she said, is considered by admissions officers without any knowledge of whether those candidates will need financial aid. She also said that GW has “significantly increased” student aid under the leadership of university President Steven Knapp, who took over when Steven Trachtenberg retired in 2007.

Richard Vedder, director of the Washington-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a nonprofit research group, said that it has become a trend for “fairly high-quality” private universities that do not quite have the academic cachet of Ivy League schools to find themselves struggling to compete with their generous financial aid packages. 

GW's endowment is around $1.3 billion, compared to more than $32 billion at Harvard University.

“They aspire to be in the big leagues and compete with the Ivy League schools, but they don’t have the resources to have a need-blind admissions policy,” Vedder told Al Jazeera.

Vedder, who helped Forbes compile its annual college rankings for 2013, said that the term “need-blind” admissions became “fashionable” in the last decade among top-tier universities after they had been criticized for allegedly being havens for the rich – and “other schools had to go along.”

In an emailed response to Al Jazeera, GW admissions emphasized the university's increase in financial aid, pointing to a nearly 34 percent rise in the amount given for aid from 2008 to 2012.

Koehler told another campus newspaper, GW Today, that the university aims to meet the full needs of every student admitted, so a need-aware policy “allows us to meet as much need of as many students as we can.”

Zach Komes, 19, a sophomore economics major at GW who is the lead organizer of the student group GW Not for Profit, which was formed in 2011 out of concern for rising tuition and funding transparency, said in an emailed statement that "it’s positive to know that this policy change has finally been made public.

"The new openness is a positive sign that Provost Koehler values transparency," added Komes. "However, the root cause of this shift in policy is the dramatic increase in university spending, fueled by large tuition hikes, in the past few decades. Many students have grown frustrated that tuition hikes have tended to fund large capital construction and renovation projects rather than financial aid and improved academics.”

Other U.S. colleges, such as Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and Tufts University in Medford, Mass., have considered or are already using need-aware admissions policies to account for shrinking budgets.

But George Washington has taken some flak for allegedly catering to wealthy students; tuition and fees ran $47,343 per year in 2013, the fourth-highest among private colleges, according to U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of colleges and universities.

And just 11 percent of the student body qualifies for Pell Grants, a federal aid program for students that is often used as a barometer of a school’s low-income population. That’s much lower than the national average of 27 percent, and significantly lower than high-caliber public universities like the University of California – Los Angeles, where 36 percent of students qualify.

University President Knapp told The Washington Post, “I’m not going to deny we have a lot of students that come from wealthy families, but we are increasingly trying to diversify, and I think we have been diversifying compared to where we were 10 years ago.”

The school opened an office of diversity and inclusion in 2010 and says that more than 60 percent of its students receive university grants.

GW drew some ire when U.S. News & World Report removed it from the magazine’s 2013 list of college rankings, when it discovered that the university had been erroneously reporting the number of incoming freshman who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes for more than a decade.

Al Jazeera

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