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Aluthge ’15: Should Brown prioritize universal need-blind admission over increased financial support for middle class students?

Opinions Columnist
Friday, October 31, 2014

Editors’ note: On today’s commentary page, Dilum Aluthge ’15 tackles both sides of a point-counterpoint debate over financial aid, as a thought experiment in argumentation. Let us know what you think in the comments section or at


My first argument for prioritizing universal need-blind admission is an ideological one. The venerated notion of “equality of opportunity,” the idea that all individuals, regardless of their background, should have the same opportunities, is embedded into the fabric of our society. In reality, of course, various structural inequalities mean this rarely the case. That makes it all the more important that when we do have the opportunity to uphold equality of opportunity, we should do so. Need-aware admission is clearly antithetical to this notion. Instituting universal need-blind admission sends the strong message that all individuals should have the same opportunities.

International students are among the groups currently subjected to a need-aware admission process. International students form a cornerstone of the Brown community. In addition to being productive members of the undergraduate community in their own right, international students offer domestic studens the opportunity to connect with perspectives from completely different contexts. Since so much of what we study is viewed through an America-centric lens, the experiences international students share enable us to gain a more balanced and accurate view of the world. While international professors and graduate students may provide this perspective to some extent, undergraduates do not substantively engage with them on a personal level — for example, by sharing a meal at the Ratty — as they do with fellow undergraduates.

Furthermore, not all international perspectives are the same. The life experiences of an international student who grew up in a wealthy family will likely be different from those of a student from the same country who grew up in a poor family. In order to truly get a grasp of the world and its peoples, we need to listen to both perspectives. But the University’s current admission process skews the international student population in favor of those from wealthy backgrounds. This skew propagates and results in an incomplete and inaccurate worldview. It would benefit the community to be able to bring international students from less privileged circumstances in order to increase diversity within the international student body.

Need-aware admission also affects transfer students and Resumed Undergraduate Education students. Transfer and RUE students are often neglected in conversations at Brown. For example, BlogDailyHerald posts regularly make references to experiences from freshman year — which may alienate transfer students — and experiences linked to being in the 18-22 age group — which serves to marginalize RUE students. Perhaps because of their relatively low population, transfer and RUE students seem to regularly be, in some sense, forgotten. Instating a universal need-blind policy would be a good way for the University to unequivocally reaffirm its commitment to these students. And, as an added benefit, bringing in transfer and RUE students from less privileged backgrounds has the potential to further increase the overall racial and socioeconomic diversity of the student body.

Yes: Rebuttal

The other side’s first argument rests on the general notion of equality of opportunity. While sending a strong message about equality is nice, it is unclear how universal need-blind admissions would make any concrete changes to the structural and societal features that are so often the cause of inequality.

The second argument asserts that a need-aware admission process results in an international student population that is disproportionately upper class. While that is true, it is worth noting that less financial aid for middle-class families results in a domestic student population that is disproportionately upper or lower class. Related to this, I make two points. First, since domestic students make up a larger proportion of the population than do international students, a purely empirical point of view suggests prioritizing the former over the latter. Second, while a disproportionately wealthy international student population is not ideal, it is still incredibly invaluable and provides campus with a great variety of experiences and viewpoints. There is value in gaining the perspectives of international students from different socioeconomic classes, but it is not enough to justify prioritizing them over middle-class students.

The third argument asserts that transfer and RUE students are neglected in conversations at Brown, and that instituting need-blind admissions would reaffirm the University’s commitment to these student populations. While this is a nice feel-good idea, I don’t know if the benefit outweighs the cost. A better idea would be to prioritize middle-class aid, and then affirm Brown’s commitment to transfer and RUE students by, for example, expanding the resources, programs and advising made available to these groups of students.



Why don’t we start this off with a nice bit of hyperbole? The American middle class is dying!

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let me make a more serious statement: The American middle class is dying.

Yes, it’s true. Despite the air of exaggeration surrounding this phrase, the middle class is indeed slowly disappearing. According to the Washington Post, middle-class wealth is “20 percent lower today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was in 1984.” And according to the Pew Research Center, the proportion of American households that are middle class has been declining since 1971.  If these trends continue unchecked, America will soon be a nation with essentially no middle class.

This spells bad news for the American economy. A May 2012 study conducted by the Center for American Progress concluded a strong middle class is essential for stable economic growth.  Without a middle class, economic growth becomes unstable, income disparities become even more extreme and the nation suffers.

So what does any of this have to do with financial aid at Brown? Brown has a social obligation to affect change in important public policy areas. Expanding financial support for middle-class students is an excellent opportunity for Brown to do just that. Education is one of the fundamental ways of broadening and maintaining a middle class. By increasing middle-class access to top-tier academic resources, we build a conduit that works to strengthen a core part of American society.

In addition to the public policy aspect, there is another compelling reason for prioritising middle-class financial aid. In the fall of 2013, a poll conducted by the Undergraduate Council of Students — completed by one-third of all undergrads — found that twice as many students wanted the University to prioritize middle-class aid over universal need-blind admission (“Financial aid proves top priority in UCS feedback report”, Oct. 24, 2013). In the spring of 2014, a similar poll conducted by The Herald — completed by approximately one-sixth of all undergrads — found that 37 percent of students wanted middle-class aid prioritized highest, while 32 percent of students wanted a universal need-blind admission policy prioritized highest (“Students divided on financial aid priorities”, Mar. 13). It’s not entirely unambiguous, but there definitely appears to be a trend of students supporting middle-class aid as the University’s highest priority. While student opinion should certainly not be the sole driver of University policy, it is worth taking this trend into consideration.

Finally, pursuing middle-class financial aid could potentially help solve Brown’s “image” problem. Whether we like it or not, much of the nation considers Brown an elitist institution. The media often caricatures us, along with our peer institutions, as snobby and disconnected from reality. If the University were to start an active, energetic campaign to increase middle-class financial aid, it would help send the message that we are actively trying to change that image.

No: Rebuttal

The other side begins with an argument based in social obligations and public policy. While nice in theory, I would argue that the reality is one university’s admission policy is  not going to have the slightest effect on the contended erosion of the American middle class. Changing deep political and economic trends requires deep political and economic interventions.

The second argument is that more undergraduates support prioritizing expanded middle-class aid than support prioritizing universal need-blind admissions. I make two points in response to that. First, though the older poll shows a fairly stark gap, the more recent poll only shows a five percentage point difference. This suggests that more research should be done before a definitive conclusion can be made about student opinion on the issue. Second, though student input is important in many university policymaking processes, it is not the single most important driving factor. Therein, this factor is not, at this point, valid.

Finally, I argued that prioritizing middle-class aid would solve an “image” problem. But even if such a problem does exist, making a major policy decision for the purpose of improving or maintaining an image seems rather irresponsible and superficial and appears antithetical to the University’s very nature.


Dilum Aluthge ’15 MD’19 believes that reasonable people should be able to argue both sides of an issue. He can be reached at

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  1. The university should prioritize financial aid for american citizens over internationals.

  2. Interesting concept

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