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The history of need-blind admissions at Brown

A look through 40 years of Herald archives

<p>Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Eric Widmer called the 1992 sit-in in support of need-blind admissions “one of the most awful experiences I ever had to go through.”</p>

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Eric Widmer called the 1992 sit-in in support of need-blind admissions “one of the most awful experiences I ever had to go through.”

Earlier this year, the University announced that it would transition to need-blind admissions for international students starting with the class of 2029, becoming the eighth university in the United States to adopt the policy. The University has practiced need-blind admissions for domestic applicants since 2003.

One day before this announcement, Brown settled an antitrust lawsuit for $19.5 million that alleged Brown colluded with institutions in the 568 Presidents Group — a consortium of colleges that maintain need-blind admission policies — to set financial aid calculation methodologies that “artificially inflated net prices of attendance,” according to previous Herald coverage. The group disbanded in November 2022.

The plaintiffs also claimed that the universities involved in the lawsuit were not adhering to the federal regulations surrounding need-blind admissions due to the preferential treatment given to the children of donors.

In a press release, University Spokesperson Brian Clark said: “We vehemently believe that the claims had no merit, but given the time and financial resources required to take this case to trial, we determined that our resources are better spent resolving this matter.”


But Brown’s definition of need-blind admissions may not impede a student’s financial situation from being taken into consideration during their application review, The Herald previously reported.

The University uses need-blind admissions to ensure that applicants’ “ability to pay for their education will not be a determining factor in the admission decision.” This is different from need-aware admissions, the school’s official policy for domestic applicants until 2003 and the policy for international applicants until next year. 

During the Brown’s need-aware admissions period, 90-95% of applications were reviewed under a need-blind paradigm, but the rest could be rejected solely if they demonstrated financial need.

The Herald reviewed its archives to build a timeline of notable events in the history of need-blind admissions.

1980s: Need-blind admissions emerges

Starting in 1983, need-blind admissions became more contested. In April 1983, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Alan Maynard ’47 shared that the University received more applications requesting financial aid than in previous years. At this point, most of the other Ivy League universities had need-blind admissions in place. 

Maynard shared that at Brown, “admissions is only aid-conscious when it comes down to the wire … the majority of the class is chosen on a need-blind basis.”

Then-Dean of the College Harriet Sheridan estimated at a meeting of the Advisory Committee on University Planning that a need-blind policy would cost Brown $128,000 a year — around $400,000 in today’s money. This differed from Maynard’s claim that need-blind policies would cost the University twice that sum. Nonetheless, Sheridan’s estimation caused ACUP member Kent Greenfield ’84 to propose a $100,000 addition to the financial aid budget every year for five years to sustain need-blind admissions.

In early 1984, the Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid of the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, announced the creation of a subcommittee to explore need-blind admissions. But a former member of the CAFA, Ann Arthur ’85, said that students’ lack of enthusiasm for financial aid was a reason the University did not prioritize need-blind admissions in the budget.

The following semester, Undergraduate Council of Students president Beth Grossman ’85 listed need-blind admissions as a UCS priority. As a result, a referendum calling on Brown to introduce need-blind admissions was passed a few months later.


In the spring of 1985, The Herald reported that approximately 80 students staged a sit-in outside of the admissions office to protest the “quality of campus life for Latinos” and demanded the consideration of need-blind admissions. 

At the beginning of the 1988-89 school year, then-University President Vartan Gregorian said of need-blind admissions that he didn’t “know all the details of that yet. But if Brown cannot afford (it) ... Brown has to get new resources.” Then-Director of Financial Aid Shirley Wright shared that at least 30% of students were on financial aid. 

According to Wright, while most private universities outside of the Ivy League at the time were need-blind, they did guarantee aid to admitted students as Brown did. 

In accepting students to the class of 1993, the University experienced a “$4 million financial blunder” wherein too many students who needed financial aid were admitted. Former Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Eric Widmer offered to resign. But Gregorian refused Widmer’s offer and reaffirmed that students would still receive the financial aid packages they had been offered. 

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Early 1990s: Student activism addresses need-blind

Gregorian’s spring 1990 letter explained how “Brown simply could not afford to pursue a need-blind policy until at least the year 2003.” 

In October, leading up to a Corporation meeting, the group Students on Financial Aid  and the Coalition for Need-Blind Admissions launched a four-day “‘creative’ series of events” during which students carried life-sized cardboard cutouts of people featuring facts about need-blind admissions around campus. 

The groups also hosted a teach-in and distributed green ribbons for students to wear to indicate support for need-blind admissions. On the Main Green, 130 chairs were set up to symbolize the 10% of the class that were rejected as a result of need-aware admissions. The four days ended with students distributing leaflets and a petition with the hopes of garnering support from alums.

The following week, during Family Weekend, the groups placed a large sign of the dollar symbol covering the Van Wickle gates to “visually show people that the Gates were a symbol of elitism” and how the University rejected students due to their financial status. They were instructed to remove the sign by the Dean of Student Life.

On April 22, 1992, need-blind activists seized University Hall. In one of Brown’s most notable protests, over 250 students involved in Students for Aid and Minority Admissions were arrested for their takeover of the building. 

In a recent interview with The Herald, Meredith Kolodner ’92, then-SAMA spokesperson, said students did not anticipate being arrested. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have taken over that building, which had way too many entrances and all the doors pushed inward,” she said. 

The group didn’t initially plan for the 200-plus person occupation. A group of approximately 60 students “decided to do a sit-in in front of the admissions office … and then we were going to leave,” Kolodner said.

But soon, she recalled, “people started pouring in” through the doors and windows, “and it became a building takeover.”

“All of a sudden, there were hundreds of people in there, and we had to decide whether or not we were going to try to hold the building or leave because they were telling us to leave. We decided that because there was so much support that we should try to take it from a sit-in to a building takeover,” Kolodner said. “Brown police were not that excited about us sleeping overnight in the building, so they gave us one last warning.” 

Once the warning was issued, Kolodner described how students voted whether to stay and risk arrest or leave. The majority chose to stay. The University then arrested 253 students and escorted them out of the building in pairs, past cheering students.

Protestors were ultimately ordered to pay a fine to the University.

Mid-1990s: NACAC, petitions, water usage 

In mid-October 1993, Brown voted against the National Association of College Admission Counselors’ new standards of partnership which would require all member schools — including Brown — to be strictly need-blind. 

In an interview with The Herald at the time, Cleve Latham, then-president of NACAC, said “I don’t think that there are as many people in the country who agree with Brown’s stance as they may think.” 

The University again claimed that while it supported need-blind admissions, it could not afford it.

In November, the Campus Affairs Committee of UCS circulated a petition for need-blind admissions that was signed by over 1,000 people on its first day of circulation.

Early in 1994, a student who was arrested in the 1992 sit-in created the Coalition for Aid Utilizing Student Environmentalism and proposed a plan to Gregorian to cut down on water usage in order to free up $1 million to dedicate to financial aid. The plan was ultimately rejected by Brown. 

In the spring, Widmer resigned. He told The Herald that the 1992 takeover was “one of the most awful experiences I ever had to go through.”

Late-1990s: The Corporation addresses need-blind admissions

After multiple years of a lapse in notable protest for need-blind admissions, the Ivy Council — an organization founded in 1990 that connects leaders of Ivy League student governments — passed a resolution in November 1997 urging all schools to adopt need-blind admissions. 

The resolution was brought forward by two students from Brown — the only Ivy League school that still did not have need-blind admissions. 

This resolution also coincided with the end of Gregorian’s term as president and a unanimous UCS vote in favor of need-blind admissions.

In spring 1998, UCS reportedly announced a new fundraising campaign: Brown Students for Financial Aid. By March 4, 1998,  they were nearly halfway to their goal of $10,000 to provide financial aid to one student for one year. Brown’s new president, Gordon Gee, and four Corporation members, promised to match the money raised. Any excess funds would be used to create an endowment for financial aid.

During the 1999 October meeting, the Corporation focused more on need-blind admissions than in previous years. One event organized by Brown Students for Financial Aid, called InCorporation Carnival, consisted of dozens of students standing outside the Corporation meeting, shaking coffee cans filled with change and chanting “need-blind now.” As the Corporation walked across the Main Green, while most Corporation members ignored the protestors, a few placed donations into the cans, The Herald reported

The 2000s: 

The new century marked Brown’s first female president, Sheila Blumstein, who replaced Gordon Gee after his brief tenure as president. In September, the committee formed by Gee in 1999 — the Alper Committee on Financial Aid — presented its report to Blumstein. She, in turn, promised to present her plan to achieve need-blind admissions to the Corporation.

The Corporation agreed in their October meeting that need-blind admissions needed to be introduced within the next one to five years. But, at that time, no formal decisions were made.

Fall 2001 marked the start of former President Ruth Simmons’s term. In an interview with The Herald at the time, she claimed that she wanted to address issues surrounding financial aid within her first year. 

In September, The Herald reported that Brown was excluded from the 568 Presidents Group, the consortium that eventually caused litigation against the University. 

It was created following Congress's 1994 enactment of section 568 of the “Improving America’s Schools Act.” To be a member of the group and collaborate on financial aid calculations, schools were required to have need-blind admissions policies under this law. 

In December, Simmons detailed her plan to bring a need-blind policy to the Corporation at the February meeting. At the meeting, Brown committed to being need-blind for domestic applicants starting with the class of 2007. 

The Herald reported that the Corporation approved the $1.3 million needed to make need-blind admission a reality. 

Student activist leaders published a letter of support in The Herald claiming that the Corporation’s actions indicated a willingness by the University “to create a diverse and excellent academic community.”

Talia LeVine

Talia LeVine is a photographer for The Herald and a University News Senior Staff Writer focusing on Admissions & Financial aid. She is a first-year from Seattle, WA studying Political Science with an emphasis on human rights.

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