Last week Grinnell College announced that it will spend several months evaluating its financial aid policies, including the slight possibility of moving away from its commitment to need-blind admission.

Grinnell becomes the second prominent liberal-arts college to question whether need-blind admission is sustainable. Wesleyan University announced this summer that it will move away from its need-blind policy as part of President Michael Roth’s plan to control costs and keep Wesleyan financially sustainable.  Wesleyan will continue to meet the full financial need of enrolled students, but once the financial aid budget is exhausted will take financial need into account in making admissions decisions, impacting up to the last 10% of those admitted.  The decision continues to be controversial at Wesleyan, with nearly 50 students attempting to gain entrance to the September meeting of the Board of Trustees to protest.

Grinnell and Wesleyan are far from the only colleges or universities concerned about rising financial aid costs.  A reference to Wesleyan’s decision showed up in e-mails between the rector and vice-rector of the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia just days before they attempted to force the resignation of President Teresa Sullivan. The University’s AccessUVa program, initiated in 2008-09, committed $40 million per year to provide loan-free financial aid packages for low income students and cap loans for middle-class students receiving financial aid, but within two years was costing twice as much annually.

The economic challenges are obvious, part of a larger conversation about whether the current economic model for higher education is sustainable.  At a time when the job prospects for college graduates are making many families question whether the value of a college degree justifies the cost, can colleges continue to raise tuitions at a rate exceeding the rate of inflation while throwing more financial aid and tuition discounts at families unable to pay the full freight?

The relevant part of the Wesleyan story for this space is President Roth’s contention that there is an ethical dimension to ending need-blind admission.  He told that there is a “moral argument” for a college not to accept students if they can’t provide enough financial aid to meet their need.

 The ethics of need-blind admission is not a new issue.  In 1993 I took part in the debate on need-blind admission at the Assembly meeting during the NACAC Conference in Pittsburgh.  That debate came as a small number of colleges were arguing that financial realities no longer allowed them to follow the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice requirement that colleges admit students without regard to financial need and also meet the full need of admitted students.  I subsequently wrote an article, “The Ethics of Need-Blind Admission,” for the Spring, 1995 issue of the Journal of College Admission.

Back in the 1990s those arguing for the necessity of being need-aware were seen as bordering on criminal, whereas today there is broad recognition that need-blind admission is an ideal that may be challenging to maintain, especially in tough economic times.  That change in perspective illustrates two important points about ethics.  The first is that ethical principles or theories are meaningless if they aren’t practical.  The second is that the ethical landscape can change as realities change, although the “changing landscape” argument too often feels like a rationalization for erosion of ethical standards.

Need-blind admission has historically been interpreted to encompass two different, though related, propositions.  One is admission decisions made without consideration of a student’s financial need.  The other is meeting full financial need for any admitted student.  The ethical dilemma occurs when it is not possible to do both.  Should a college or university admit the student and provide insufficient financial aid, or should the institution not admit the student because it can’t meet full need?

As with most ethical dilemmas, there is room for disagreement.  President Roth of Wesleyan argues that the university’s obligation to make sure that the students it admits have the best chance of succeeding outweighs admitting students without regard to need.  I understand that view, but believe that the term “need-blind admission” makes it clear that the ethical imperative has to do with admission. 

The social contract that exists between colleges and applicants is that admissions offices will render a decision based on the applicant’s qualifications. (I recognize that view may seem anachronistic or even naive in an age where crafting a class is the operating principle in selective admission, but I prefer to think of it as idealistic.)  The essence of need-blind admission is the principle that admission should not be tied to ability to pay, not that meeting financial need must be tied to admission.

 Within ethics there is a distinction between acts that are obligatory and acts that are supererogatory (virtuous or praiseworthy).  Those in the first category are moral duties, whereas those in the second go beyond the call of duty.  In the college admissions process applicants have a right to expect an admissions decision based on merit, and colleges have a corresponding obligation.  Applicants don’t have a right to expect that colleges will pay their way (although we have traditionally sent the message that financial aid is an entitlement).  It is virtuous for the college to provide financial aid, but hardly obligatory, especially if institutional funds are limited.    

Of course offering a student admission without corresponding aid presents its own problems.  Higher education continues to be the path to the American Dream, and access to education without funding is access in name only.  I am disturbed by reports of institutions admitting students with an Expected Family Contribution of $0 and gapping those students $20,000-30,000 in financial aid packaging.  I’m also not ready to conclude that being need-aware is always wrong.  Higher education is at least partly (but not only) a business, and in tough economic times factoring in ability to pay is as defensible as other kinds of preference. 

What is not defensible is denying admission to a qualified student only because they need aid. That’s paternalism at best, making a choice for the student because you know what’s best for them, and self-serving at worst, a way to protect yield.