The College Quietly Abandons Prestigious “Need-blind” Admissions Policy

The incoming class of 2023 was the first class in decades for which financial need was considered a factor in some admissions decisions

Allyson Noenickx ’19


The College has chosen to abandon its need-blind admissions policy in favor of a need-aware one. For the first time in decades, one’s ability to afford the College’s now record-high tuition was considered a factor in some admissions decisions. While the new need-aware policy has been in place for the class of 2023 decision period, no formal announcement of this change in policy was made to the student body until Tuesday.

Only a handful of universities across the nation have the privilege of claiming that their college admissions practices are both need-blind––meaning that they do not take an applicant’s financial standing into account in admissions decisions––and that they meet full demonstrated financial need of the applicant––be that through loans, work study, or grants. In accordance to their Jesuit beliefs, the College of the Holy Cross proudly counted themselves among these elite few schools until this academic year.

“We fought the fight for a good long time, and given our endowment we would probably be one of the, if you will, ‘poorest’ schools that continued this policy for as long as we did,” said Director of Admissions Ann McDermott in an interview with the Spire. McDermott compared the need-blind policy to “a blank check that you don’t know what the dollar amount is going to be. At some point it becomes unsustainable,” said McDermott.

According to the College’s website in August 2017, “Your financial circumstances have no bearing on your admission decision. This ensures that all of our applicants are evaluated on a level playing field.” This line as well as the phrase “need-blind” was eliminated from the website some time between August 2017 and October 2018 without formal announcement to the student body until this week. The website cites that “Education should be accessible to everyone who yearns to discover and pursue their passions, engage in service to others and lead a life of purpose,” as a “core Jesuit belief.”

Screenshots of the College’s financial aid website from August 2017 (left) and October 2018 (right). The two images reflect the change in the need-blind policy.

McDermott could not recall exactly how long the College’s need-blind policy had been in place, but assured that it has been decades. “When I came to work here in ‘89 it was in place, so it’s been a long time,” said McDermott.

McDermott offered some insight into how the new need-aware policy played out this spring. “From an admissions perspective nothing changed in the way we do our work,” said McDermott. “We read students as we would, we had committee, we had no knowledge about a student’s ability to pay or what they could bring to the table––so all of this was done purely as it has been in the past.” It was not until the admissions team got to the final steps in rounding out the class that they then pulled in about 92 students for further consideration. These students,who ranked within points of each other and were typically from New England, tended to be reviewed three to four times. When re-considering this small pool, financial need was considered in some cases, among a series of other factors. According to McDermott, financial standing will also play a factor when it comes to admitting students from the waitlist, something that the College has not done in several years due to high yield.

In a statement to the Spire, Provost and Dean of the College, Margaret Freije, reiterated the minimal impact that this change in policy had. “The overwhelming majority of admissions decisions this year and in the future are and will be made without consideration of financial need,” wrote Freije.

Students were not formally made aware of the new need-aware policy until the SGA Instagram account announced a “Need Blind Talk” with Provost Freije on Tuesday. However, Freije assured in a statement to the Spire that this change has been a long-time coming. “In meetings with our faculty over the past several years, I have often talked about the need to continually evaluate and assess both the effectiveness and the cost of our admissions and financial policies and practices, in order to successfully recruit and enroll a class of high achieving students that is socioeconomically, racially, ethnically and geographically diverse. We’ve also had a number of discussions with the students and faculty on the finance and planning council,” wrote Freije.  

The step away from need-blind admissions was previously mentioned by Provost Freije in a March 4 article on the College’s website. “In order to build the diverse community that we seek, and ensure that we are able to fully meet their full demonstrated need, it is possible that a small number of our admission decisions may need to be made with an awareness of financial need going forward,” wrote Freije.

Despite now being need-aware, the College will continue to meet 100 percent “demonstrated need,” as determined by the College, of admitted students. “Not meeting need is a recipe for disaster as far as yield,” said McDermott.

The College drops its unsustainable need blind policy at a time when many capital projects and fundraising initiatives are being undertaken. The College has committed to fundraising efforts through their “Become More” campaign which hopes to raise $400 million by 2020 in order to advance six long term goals. Among these goals is that $65 million be dedicated to “Enabling Access, Diversity and Affordability.” This goal aims in part to fund the 100 percent demonstrated need met policy which “ensures that our applicants are judged on their merits, not their means,” according to the “Become More” website.

Numerous capital projects have also been undertaken as the College’s campus adapts to accommodate a much larger student body. In the fall of 2018 the College opened its new $95 million Luth Athletic Center. Just weeks ago, the College began construction on the new fieldhouse, a project that is estimated to cost an additional $30 million. Construction of the $92 million Center for the Arts and Creativity, set to be built on part of the current upper campus parking lot, has been delayed.

The decision also comes when tuition for next year is at an unprecedented high. Last month the College held its second annual Tuition Transparency Town Hall after it was announced that for a second year in a row, tuition would be increasing. After last year’s 4.25 percent increase in tuition, the College announced that tuition would again increase for the 2019-2020 academic year, this time by by 3.75 percent, bringing tuition, board, and mandatory fees just shy of $70,000.

The College’s step away from a need-blind policy, especially in times of financial distress, is not an unprecedented one. In times of financial turmoil, other schools have had to abandon similar policies. In 2012 Wesleyan University faced much backlash from their student body when they announced they would be stepping back from their need-blind policy. In 2016 Haverford College changed its policy to a need-aware one similar to that which Holy Cross has adopted, one in which applications are evaluated as in the past without regard for financial need, save a small fraction of the last few students. Macalester College successfully dropped its need-blind policy in 2006 and since then has actually slashed the number of student who pay full tuition.

However, other schools have been striving to reach the pinnacle of need-blind admissions, a practice that some see as a symbolic commitment to nondiscriminatory admissions policies. In 2010 Hamilton College adopted such a policy and saw an explosion of donations from alumni eager to support efforts for increased diversity. Vassar College dropped its need-blind policy in the late 1990s due to financial woes, only to re-adopt it years later in 2007 with much success.

According to Provost Freije, “Approximately 60 percent of our students are receiving financial aid, and the average scholarship awarded by Holy Cross this year is $36,000. This represents more than 50 percent of the cost of attendance. Total financial aid awarded by Holy Cross is estimated to be nearly $67 million.”

Other peer institutions, including Jesuit schools like Boston College, continue to meet demonstrated need in full and to offer need-blind admissions. According to Boston College’s admissions website, “True to our Jesuit ideals of inclusion and reverence for all people, we’re committed to providing equitable access to an education that can enrich lives. We work to ensure that all qualified students—no matter their socioeconomic backgrounds—can thrive at Boston College.”

“This was the first year, and I’m hoping that we can continue to manage it this way so it is not a huge impact on a students decision to apply here,” said McDermott. “I think the process was managed well and impacted as few students as possible.” According to McDermott, the College saw a strong applicant pool with applications up 2 percent––making it the largest pool in five years. The College also witnessed increases in many underrepresented groups including first generation and international students.

“I understand the need to continue to communicate with the campus community about these issues, which is why Admissions Director Ann McDermott and I recently discussed this issue in the Holy Cross Newsroom, and why we scheduled an open forum this week to continue the discussion,” said Freije.

Provost Freije will meet with students in the Hub at 9 PM tonight to discuss the removal of the need-blind policy. More details on this meeting are to come.

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