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Becoming Need-Blind in an Environment of Need

How one institution has made it work
University Business, May 2011

Chances are I am not the only college president being asked these days why my institution is not following Sewanee's lead and reducing tuition by 10 percent—or more.

Several years ago, before the recession, I was being asked a different question about my institution, Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.: Why are we still including loans in student financial aid packages when a number of peer colleges have eliminated them?

And I imagine some of my presidential colleagues have been asked about Hamilton's decision last March to adopt a need-blind admission policy.

Such questions imply that colleges that do not respond to a peer institution's action will be at a competitive disadvantage when recruiting students, but that's the wrong way to look at these initiatives. Reducing tuition, eliminating loans, and becoming need-blind are generally attempts to address the same challenging question: What can be done to increase access to a college education? That's a fundamentally important query, and it's being answered by colleges in different and creative ways.

Hamilton has taken several steps that are counter to current trends and reflect our long-standing commitment to ensuring access—a deeply held principle at an institution where six of nine senior staff members were the first in their family to attend college. But our actions have not been universally applauded. In addition to keeping loans as part of students' financial aid packages, Hamilton eliminated its decade-old merit aid program in March 2007 and reallocated those funds to need-based aid. Reaction from the higher education community was generally supportive, but public opinion was not.

Parents of high school students, already anxious about affording a college education, told us directly and on blogs that the academic achievements of their children deserved a merit scholarship. And who could blame them? After all, these parents were aware of programs such as the HOPE scholarships in Georgia, and this helped raise their expectations that success in the classroom would be acknowledged in the same way prowess on the playing field might be rewarded with athletic scholarships.

Parents told us that the academic achievements of their children deserved a merit scholarship.

Upon closer study, however, we began to understand that the criticism stemmed from the mistaken belief that Hamilton would be rewarding the financially most needy at the expense of the academically most deserving. But this was not an either-or situation at Hamilton. Eliminating merit aid meant more resources to support the admission of the most academically talented students and meet their full demonstrated financial need. Another criticism, that the academic profile of Hamilton's entering class would suffer without merit scholarships, proved to be unfounded.

Even our decision to keep loans as a part of students' financial aid packages was made, paradoxically, to ensure access—because it enabled us to stretch limited financial aid dollars and was consistent with our belief that students should have a reasonable financial stake in their education.

Despite our 2007 decision to reallocate $1 million annually in merit money to need-based aid, we were still need-aware at the margins for each entering class. In other words, a family's ability to pay our price was considered in just a small percentage of admission decisions each year. This bothered many on a campus that takes pride in being a "college of opportunity," as evidenced in our 2009 strategic plan. That plan included, among its four priorities: "Financial aid that meets the demonstrated need of every student, and a long-term goal of being need-blind in admission."

That long-term goal proved to be a lot closer than we thought. While the campus was considering the strategic plan, the admission staff was quietly experimenting with need-blind admission to answer an essential question: How much more financial aid would be needed for Hamilton to become need-blind? The answer: at least $2 million, on top of a financial aid budget of $24.5 million at the time. A lot of money, to be certain, but less than we anticipated.

When presented with this information at the end of a six-hour planning session in December 2009, members of Hamilton's Board of Trustees spontaneously pledged $3 million in bridge money so that we could start immediately admitting our first-year classes on a need-blind basis. Like at the majority of need-blind colleges, the policy applies to domestic students admitted for the fall semester; it does not apply to international students nor, at this point, can we promise to extend it to those admitted from the wait-list when space remains in the class after the May 1 deadline. 

The December 2009 session at which the trustees pledged moral and financial support for this initiative was the most stirring board meeting I have ever attended, a sentiment echoed by many long-time trustees, because it signaled unambiguously the college's commitment to access and opportunity. Adopting such a policy during extremely difficult economic times added to the excitement. One young alumna, upon learning of the decision, wrote, "This could be my proudest day as a Hamiltonian."

But we realized, of course, that we had to find the resources to permanently sustain our need-blind promise. We had the $3 million in trustee bridge funds, but when phased in fully over four years, the need-blind protocol would cost Hamilton at least an additional $2 million annually—and perhaps more. The bridge funds would not last long. Our colleagues in the business and development offices had to make the numbers work.

That meant balancing the budget in the short term and raising the money in the long term—and doing both, as it has turned out, in the midst of a prolonged economic slowdown during which we limited our last three fee increases to 3.0, 3.8 and 3.3 percent, respectively. At the same time, more families are qualifying for even more financial aid since we made the decision.

Need-blind is not the goal; access is the goal.

The pride felt by employees was shared by alumni, so we decided to tap into our graduates' affection for their alma mater and enthusiasm for the decision. Hamilton launched a new capital campaign in December 2010. It has a smaller overall goal and is shorter in duration—and its priorities are more focused than our previous fundraising efforts. The primary objective is $40 million in new endowment, the income from which will provide the additional approximately $2 million more needed to fund the need-blind promise. And despite the recession, we intend to increase the goal of the Annual Fund by $200,000 (3 percent in 2010-2011) every year until the new endowed funds begin providing income: The short-term plan is to supplement the incremental dollars from the Annual Fund with the bridge money from the trustees, all while controlling expenditures.

Being need-blind decisively aligns our admission practices with our mission as a college of opportunity and access. As Hamilton's Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Monica Inzer often reminds us, need-blind is not the goal; access is the goal. Operating need-blind is one way of ensuring access at Hamilton, just as other colleges are pursuing the same goal by reducing tuition, eliminating loans, or adding to financial aid.

As the youngest child of a Brooklyn ship-fitter with only two years of high school, as someone whose mother and three older siblings all attended either commercial or vocational high schools, and whose formal education stopped there, I could never have gone to college without the generosity of others. Access to a college education changed the trajectory of my life and with the commitment to such opportunity being demonstrated by colleges across the country, it promises to do the same for countless students in the future.

Joan Hinde Stewart has been president of Hamilton College (N.Y.) since 2003.