OPINION: Need-aware admissions keeps out low-income students and students of color

One closed and one open eye float in front of red and beige college campus buildings. A blue banner with the words "college admissions" arcs above the buildings.
Graphic by Rya Jetha

A small group of admissions officers sit around a table, deciding the future of hundreds of hopeful young students. You would assume the admissions officers talk about the usual: your community service hours, GPA, leadership positions and maybe your dreaded SAT/ACT scores. 

But what you might not know is that many colleges will consider your socioeconomic status when deciding whether you deserve a place at their institutions, including Pitzer College and Scripps College

Both institutions practice what is known as a need-aware admissions policy. Under this policy, your ability to pay tuition and how much financial aid you will require is a factor in whether you’ll be admitted. 

Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College and Pomona College have varying need-blind policies, where one’s financial need is not a factor in the admissions process. 

For CMC and Mudd, the policy only applies to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. For Pomona, applicants who are U.S. citizens and/or have graduated from a U.S. high school, regardless of nationality, are eligible for need-blind admissions.

Need-aware admission policies give the privileged another unfair advantage in gaining access to higher education and scare away first-generation and/or low-income students who are already unsure about their chances of admission. 

It’s also a form of financial discrimination, making it even more difficult for already-disadvantaged individuals to gain a place at prestigious universities.

“We do accept some students on the edge of admissibility because they can contribute to the costs of an Oberlin education. On the other hand, we invariably find ourselves waitlisting or denying some students each year who are otherwise well-qualified and appealing, due to a high level of financial need,” an Oberlin College admissions counselor wrote in a blog post about the reality of need-aware admissions. 

The current argument for need-aware admissions policies is that institutions must know how much money to allocate for financial aid to ensure there’s enough funds in the annual budget to meet the need of their admitted students. 

This entire situation is nothing short of ironic. You can receive financial help if you are admitted, yet if you need financial help, you might not be admitted to begin with. 

To make matters worse, in reality, not all colleges that are need-aware will even meet your full demonstrated need. Some may make you take out student loans, potentially leaving you with a staggering amount of student debt when you graduate, according to The New York Times

Due to the disproportionate amount of black and Hispanic students who are low-income, according to State of Working America, need-aware keeps higher education white by creating more barriers between people of color and prestigious universities. 

Here at the Claremont Colleges, we can see the effects of need-blind policies versus need-aware policies. Pitzer has a need-aware admissions system; it’s also one of the least diverse of the 5Cs in terms of racial and ethnic diversity (behind Scripps, another need-aware college), according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Pitzer is also the least economically diverse school at the 5Cs, with the median Pitzer student’s family income being a whopping $216,000, according to The New York Times.

On the other hand, Mudd has a need-blind admissions system and is the most diverse institution of the 5Cs, with nearly 70 percent of its student population identifying as non-white and the lowest median family income ($145,400), according to HMC’s own statistics and reporting by The New York Times

Additionally, Pomona and CMC are both more racially and ethnically diverse than Scripps and Pitzer, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

As a student who attends an institution that claims to value intercultural understanding and social responsibility, I would expect Pitzer to try to make it as easy as possible for disadvantaged groups to gain access to education. 

That’s unfortunately not the case.

I’m not in a position to speak about the financial situation of Pitzer. But if difficult decisions should be made, they shouldn’t be at the expense of one of our core values. 

Diversity contributes to the unique community at Pitzer, and it should be a primary goal when the administration considers how to appropriate our budget.

It’s unconscionable for us to espouse a commitment to diversity when we’re willing to pass on overqualified candidates from disadvantaged groups because they have a lower socioeconomic background. 

We cannot only commit to diversity when it is convenient. 

Switching to a need-blind admissions system is what Pitzer, Scripps and every other college needs to do. Considering financial need in students’ applications only worsens the structural inequalities that minorities and low-income people already face both in gaining admission and when they attend the institution. 

Predominantly white institutions make minorities feel isolated and tokenized, neither of which will help them feel comfortable. 

As a person of color, I’m aware that higher education wasn’t made for people like me. 

Need-aware admissions only perpetuates this idea. If institutions of higher education are truly committed to making college more accessible, they should have need-blind admissions and not consider financial need as a factor in admission decisions. 

In the spirit of meritocracy, we should all have as much of an equal opportunity as possible, and need-aware policies will not allow us to do that. 

Anais Rivero PZ ’22 is from Miami, Florida. She’s interested in politics and Latin American studies. She tells everyone who will listen about being Cuban and drinks three cups of coffee a day on average.

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