By Joe Engleman
Vice President for Enrollment Joe Bagnoli shed some light on the hidden world of college admissions and the challenges facing Grinnell at a town hall on Thursday night. The revelations came as Bagnoli explained the three options for admissions and financial aid changes that the Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid announced this week. The first two options maintain need-blind admissions while using other strategies to add wealthier students to each class, 23 students in Option A and 68 in Option B. Option C includes the first two options, as well as becoming need-aware in the final stage of the admissions process and adding 80 wealthier students total.
“[These proposals] respond to the reality that if we’re going to solve the structural imbalance in the College’s operating budget through enrollment management related initiatives, then the only way to that is by either changing the policy of meeting 100% of demonstrated need, which we don’t intend to do, or by changing the financial need profile of entering students,” Bagnoli said in an interview. “These three approaches, in some ways, are just to varying degrees proposing initiatives that would alter the financial need profile of entering students.”
The three proposals are built on the premise of recruiting a certain number of wealthier students to replace a group of poorer students in order to generate more revenue from students and address what Standard & Poor’s and other outside groups have called an unsustainable path for the College’s finances. The Board of Trustees asked that the committee model several more extreme approaches that roll back need-blind further, which the committee considers off the table, in an effort to understand and quantify exactly what the cost of the entire need-blind admission policy is. At the Board’s meeting in October, the proposition of ruling out Option C, meaning all need-blind changes, was raised, but the trustees asked to keep Option C’s adjustment to need-blind on the table.
Option A is intended to produce the smallest increase in revenue, $3.29 million per year, out of around $35 million in annual total student revenues. It also has the smallest exchange of poorer students for wealthier students.
Option A is composed of five policy changes that could have a “slight decrease” in the number of domestic students of color and first generation college students. However, the Admissions office hopes they can prevent losses by reaching out to these students more. “We don’t put numbers on it because we realize that even if we adopt those approaches, we can maintain our commitment to diversity,” Bagnoli said.
The specific policy proposals in Option A include a graduated loan cap that raises the current cap of $3,000 per year but would ensure that all student loan debt remains at less than $20,000 total. It would also increase merit-based aid to entice wealthier students to attend, specifically by lowering qualifications for merit aid. It encourages a larger number of students from Iowa, who, if they are applying to Grinnell, tend to be wealthier, to attend. Finally, it eliminates merit scholarship indexing, which means ending the practice of increasing merit awards when tuition rises, and aims to increase the number of early decision applicants, who tend to be wealthier if they are applying in a binding process, regardless of the aid package they receive.
“Those initiatives identified in Comprehensive Approach A have been met with the least amount of resistance by members of our community. They seem the most logical first steps for us to take,” Bagnoli said.
He explained that the approaches take need into account before and after the actual admissions decisions, where the College would still be need-blind.
“It would be identifying students, both in the early phase and the later phase of the recruitment cycle, as having the strongest qualifications for admission, and who also have a strong financial capacity to contribute, and moving those students into the class through these initiatives and replacing 23 students or so who have a great deal more need and who presumably would be among the least qualified for admission,” he said. “Approach B essentially does the same thing, retaining the need-blind selection policy, but it goes more aggressively toward a shift in the financial need profile of students.”
Option B would implement all of the changes from A and then go further. It includes the possible development of a non-binding Early Action application deadline in the fall, and an early notification program aimed at informing the most academically qualified applicants of their acceptance earlier. These policies are intended to build a relationship with top students before they hear from other colleges, increasing the percentage that choose to accept Grinnell’s offer of admission. Grinnell’s yield
with top students is currently about half of what it is for all students. According to Bagnoli, an early notification pilot program will run this spring.
Option B would also increase the number of international students on campus, while bringing the amount that students from the rest of the world pay closer to Grinnell’s sticker price. Grinnell has had a policy of need-awareness among international students for some time.
One of the most controversial policy changes is the enforcement of stricter deadlines for in financial aid application forms. One would likely require that incoming students fill out the CSS Profile. The CSS Profile, run by the College Board, is used by many private colleges to determine how much aid a student needs. However, unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile requires a fee, which could make it more difficult for poorer students to fill out the financial aid proposal.
Bagnoli agreed that the CSS Profile would add challenges, but argued that Grinnell would assist the students most likely to be affected by these changes.
Bagnoli continued to elaborate on why this option is one of the most controversial being discussed. In addition to requiring the CSS Profile, the policy also enforces deadlines more strictly.
“We will change the financial aid profile of the entering class by 15 students,” he said. “It’s a tough reality for us, but it comes back to the fact that if we’re going to solve this problem through enrollment management strategies, we have to change the financial profile of the entering class. In the interest of full disclosure here, I want to point out that if we try to protect every low-income student, and if we’re successful in doing that, we don’t get 15 students.”
Option B would lead to a projected “moderate decrease” in the number of domestic students of color and first generation students. The expected increase in wealthier students would be 68. The increase in revenue is estimated at $6.4 million.
Option C has one major component—the re-introduction of need awareness in the very last stages of the admissions decision-making process. Adopting Option C would also mean implementing A and B. This policy would lead to a “significant decrease” in first generation and domestic students of color, and bring the total number of wealthier students to 80. The estimated revenue generation for this model is $9.1 million.
The main goal in releasing the policy proposals is to solicit responses so that CAFA can develop a balanced proposal that reflects the values of the Grinnell community, to be presented to the Trustees. Bagnoli emphasized these proposals are not set in stone, and that CAFA is actively seeking input from all sectors of the community. He did concede that some of the policies, like efforts to increase the number of students in Iowa, are already proceeding, in part because they are within the purview of the Admissions Office to act on by itself.
Students, faculty and alumni will make position statements at a meeting with the Board of Trustees in December. President Raynard Kington will take December and January to formulate his own recommendation and present it to the board in February. The board, though, has the final say, and will choose the path forward in February.
While there has been some input by the two student members of CAFA, SGA President Colleen Osborne ’13, who is one of them, made it clear that SGA will only endorse a policy if the student body makes their position clear.
“We’re not going to say anything to the administration without getting student feedback,” Osborne said. “That being said, we, as in students, don’t have to endorse one of the three approaches. We can endorse sections of the approaches. We can basically do whatever we want, as long as we feel comfortable with whatever we end up forming a statement, a resolution, that most students can get behind.”
She gave the example of Option C to show the power of a unified stance. “We really need to get students involved so that we can say that as SGA, that students do not want Approach C,” she said. “If the faculty, administration and students all include that, it’s going to be very hard for the Board of Trustees to ignore that.”
However, SGA only began to advertise the first town hall late Wednesday evening. It created a Facebook event, sent cluster-wide emails from SGA senators following Joint Board and a sent a campus-wide email Thursday afternoon. There were only two students in attendance at Thursday’s town hall besides members of SGA cabinet and the editorial staff of the S&B.
“We will form it based off of the students who attend these forums. There is no other way,” Osborne said. “We cannot spoon-feed students information. We’re going to really try to get the voice out these next few weeks to get them to attend these forums. If it really is bad, I will encourage us to table just to inform people outside the dining hall… If students don’t take or make the time to give their feedback to us it’s going to be hard for us.”
One of the two non-SGA or S&B students in attendance Thursday was Sam Dunnington ’14. He said that Bagnoli’s presentation convinced him that, contrary to popular belief among students, the status quo is no longer a sustainable option.
“There’s this amorphous idea of ‘oh, things will get a little worse, maybe the institution will degrade a little, but we need to hold onto absolute need-blind,’” Dunnington said. “Well, that’s not really an option. Not doing anything will sink the college. I guess that’s obvious, but that was something that I wasn’t concretely aware of. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of it.”
Students will have a chance to make their voices heard at the town halls in the next few weeks. In February, the Board of Trustees will consider stakeholders’ opinions and decide on a final course.