George Washington University Faces Backlash Over 'Dishonest' Admission Policy

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"It is an issue of transparency -- GW was misleading their clientele by saying if you are poor, that will have no bearing if you get in or not," said Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability. "That's just blatantly not true. People got onto the waiting list and money was there to fund them, but if it wasn't there, they didn't [fund them.]"

"It isn't a poor school ... but compared to Harvard, Yale and even relative to Northwestern, Duke and Columbia, it wants to be in the top ranks and behave like it's in the top ranks, but they don't have the resources," he said. All those institutions have need-blind policies.

Vedder said George Washington's $847 million endowment isn't big enough to support need-blind admissions.

George Washington has been facing the reality that other high price-tag schools have been wrestling with since the financial collapse of 2007 took a bite out of endowment interest -- only a handful of top-tier colleges and universities can afford need-blind admissions.

Even Grinnell College, which, thanks to former trustee Warren Buffett has a $1.6 billion endowment, may be rethinking its generosity, according to a 2012 interview with NPR.

"It just became clear that if we continue to give more and more aid, the numbers don't add up," Grinnell president Raynard Kington told NPR.

Need-blind and underwriting about 62 percent of the average total cost of attendance, Grinnell is second only to Harvard University in what is known as its discount rate, according to a Grinnell spokesman.

Duke, with its $6 billion endowment is need-blind for U.S. citizens and legal residents and need-aware for international students. If admitted, the university meets the "full need" of all its students, according to Duke's dean of undergraduate admissions Christoph Guttentag.

"I thought it was unfortunate that a school of this caliber would find itself in that position," said Guttentag of George Washington.

"It's not an excuse, but it is an indication of the pressure that colleges face in a very competitive marketplace where people are paying attention to rankings," he said. "I don't excuse it, but these sorts of things don't happen in a vacuum."

With "greater transparency," more colleges will likely become need-aware, according to Guttentag. And if they are, he said, these institutions need to guarantee they can meet the full demonstrated financial need of all the students they accept.

Such is the case at Connecticut College, a small liberal arts school with a $211 million endowment, which has been "quite up front" that it is need-aware for the last 20 years, according to Dean of Admission Martha Merrill.

"A handful of schools can say they are need blind, but do they meet the full demonstrated need?" she asked. "We ensure every student who is admitted has their full need met."

Like George Washington, Connecticut College is need blind on its first reading of an application. Students that "sit on the bubble" – those students who may not have the strongest applications but have "something compelling about them" -- are sidelined for a look at their financial needs, said Merrill.

"At the end of the day, when we are ready to send out our decisions and have the financial information, we run some scenarios and run yield models and may find out we have overspent," she said. "I have a budget and I need to keep that budget."

Merrill said she "applauds" George Washington for clarifying its policy.

But George Washington alumnus Corica said he feels differently about the university and its lack of transparency.

"It makes perfect logical sense, in a really callous way financially," said Corica. "The school doesn't have a lot of money to spend on aid; they'd much rather use that aid in merit packages to entice better students to go to GW instead of Georgetown (or NYU, or BU), so they try to make up the difference by taking as many full-boat kids as they can stand to take. I think it speaks to the immense amount of pressure schools face to try to move up into the top 50."

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