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Universal need-blind admission up for debate

While universal need-blind admission remains a goal, other adjustments have become priorities

The strategic planning Committee on Financial Aid recommended implementing need-blind admission for international, transfer and Resumed Undergraduate Education applicants in its most recent report to President Christina Paxson, said Jim Tilton, committee chair and director of financial aid.

In her State of Brown address last month, Paxson said expanding need-blind admission for all students could cost as much as $250 million.

Need-blind admission has been a topic of campus debate since spring of 2012, when the then-newly formed student group Brown for Financial Aid petitioned Paxson and other administrators to make it a top priority over the next decade.

Paxson will receive final reports from all six strategic planning committees in May and will use them to guide the academic plan and fundraising campaign that will mark her tenure. Paxson, Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 and the Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — will meet over the summer to plan the campaign and are expected to make decisions on the recommendations by next fall, Schlissel said.


Finding the funds

Many administrators involved in the University’s financial planning support implementing universal need-blind admission, but they said the University’s capacity to offer universal need-blind admission depends largely on the success of Paxson’s upcoming fundraising campaign.

Universal need-blind admission is impossible given the University’s current budget,said Susan Harvey, co-chair of the Committee on Financial Aid and professor of religious studies.

The 10-year timeline suggested in the committee’s report is also “a bit misleading,” Harvey said, because the time required to become universally need-blind will ultimately depend on how Paxson and other Corporation members structure the capital campaign.

“We can’t make that commitment today because our budget is already running a deficit,” Schlissel said. “Over the summer we will price out each aspect of the campaign to see where we stand.”

Financial aid currently comprises the largest piece of the University’s budget at 10 percent, Schlissel said, adding that aid will see a 5 percent increase to about $90 million in the coming year.


Current  policies

The committee suggested a 10-year plan for the University to transition to a fully need-blind admission policy, according to the two most recent reports. If Paxson, Schlissel and the Corporation decide to include this recommendation in its academic campaign, Tilton said, they will map out concrete steps within the recommended timeline.

“If they make that commitment, there will be an outpouring of support,” said Alex Mechanick ’15, a member of the Committee on Financial Aid and president of Brown for Financial Aid. “It will be a matter of changing policies and allocating resources, not necessarily intermediate steps.”

International, RUE and transfer applicants are currently evaluated by a need-aware policy, while admission for all other applicants to the University is need-blind. A set amount of money is allotted to provide financial aid for need-aware students, and they are only offered admission if there is aid money available to meet their financial needs, said Jim Miller ’73, member of the Committee on Financial Aid and dean of admission.

The current policy explicitly does not offer admission for students who require aid if the aid is not available to them, Miller said. “We wouldn’t want a family to make that decision.”

Many applicants from need-aware categories would be accepted if financial aid were need-blind, but this policy leads the University to turn away many “great students,” Miller said. He added that few peer institutions are need-blind for all applicants, so the University would be “taking a tremendous step” if it instituted universal need-blind aid.


Short-term plans

The report also proposed smaller scale actions to help students who receive financial aid that may be more feasible in the coming year, Tilton said.

For example, the report recommends annually reevaluating demonstrated need for international students as the University does for domestic students. International students’ packages are currently determined when they are initially admitted and cannot be changed for the duration of their stay at the University due to a change in their families’ financial circumstances, Tilton said.

“Circumstances for some of these students could have changed for the better or the worse,” Mechanick said. RUE and transfer students are currently allowed to reapply for aid every year, he noted, so it is “pretty silly to not allow that for certain random groups.”

Many students and administrators support another provision, which would reduce summer earnings expectations for students by at least $1,000.

Many students on aid take internships over the summer that are “unpaid or poorly paid,” Harvey said, and the University requires them to pay a sum that is “unrealistic.”

“These internships are important learning, work and educational experiences that supplement the academic programming of the University,” Harvey said. “It’s unfair that students may not be able to take these because of a financial burden they have to repay.”

A final short-term recommendation would restructure how financial aid is calculated for families in the $100,000 - $150,000 per year income bracket, according to the report. Currently, families in this bracket are expected to contribute more than families in the same income bracket at some of Brown’s peer institutions, Tilton said. Harvard, Yale and Princeton all use a different mechanism to calculate demonstrated need, resulting in those universities often offering students larger aid packages.


Community input

Student input was “integral to the planning process,” when the committee completed its report, Tilton said. He added that a resolution passed in late February by the Undergraduate Council of Students endorsed many of the initiatives outlined in the committee’s interim report — namely supporting the long-term goal of universal need-blind financial aid.

The UCS Admissions and Student Services Committee met with the Committee on Financial Aid shortly after the interim reports were released in February and reaffirmed student priorities, said UCS President Anthony White ’13.

White said UCS will continue to meet with Paxson next year and will “most definitely check in” after Paxson’s final plan is established in the fall to ensure it aligns with UCS’s goals.

Additionally, an outreach forum sponsored by the Committee on Financial Aid was held in November and invitations were particularly sent to all international, transfer and RUE students, Harvey said. Two undergraduate students serve on the Committee on Financial Aid and a survey was sent to all alums from the past 10 years seeking their input on matters of financial concern, she said.

“It’s clear to our committee and every constituency that we’ve spoken to — students, alumni — that everybody really rates financial aid as among the highest needs that Brown has,” Harvey said.


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