By Solomon Miller
Despite rumors and misunderstandings, Grinnell is unlikely to change its need-blind admissions policy for domestic students as it addresses a projected budget shortfall.
“We’re not here to get rid of need-blind,” President Raynard Kington told students, professors and administrators in a town hall meeting Thursday night.
Kington, Vice President for Finance Karen Voss and Vice President for Enrollment Joe Bagnoli presented a slate of options to help correct an expected budget shortfall in two town halls open to the Grinnell community. Kington hopes that by having this conversation publicly, Grinnellians will collectively choose the admissions policies that best represent the College’s values of academic excellence, diversity and social justice.
“I didn’t start off by trying to change the policy,” Kington said in an interview. “We’re going to be adult about this. We’re going to have a discussion. We’re going to get everyone involved. We’re going to let everyone know that you can’t just say, ‘Don’t hurt need-blind.’”
Despite student concern about changes to Grinnell’s policies, administrators assured Grinnellians that the College’s core values would not be sacrificed while the school works to regain financial stability.
“I don’t actually think that there’s as much disagreement about the goal as what the controversy we are seeing would suggest,” Bagnoli said. “I think that we all want to protect the path to social mobility for as many students as we can. The question is how can we afford to do that.”
Avoiding a Slide into Mediocrity
Prompted by the Board of Trustees, the College modeled the effects of a bevy of financial options on the school’s budget. Some options would only make a limited impact. Others would be dramatic.
“If we took the path of least resistance, what we were inevitably going to do is cut and cut and cut so that we would find ourselves having an inferior education, so that the least painful thing in the world would be to slide into mediocrity,” Kington said.
Confusion and concern consumed campus when it was leaked to students that the College’s need-blind admissions policy was being revisited. Students were then first officially notified of possible changes by an email from Kington on Friday afternoon that seemed to suggest need-blind admission may well be modified. The S&B reported on the email online. Kington and others have since reassured students that such a change is highly unlikely.
“I don’t think we’re going to cut need-blind,” he said.
Instead, the most likely change is to moderately raise the cap on student loans offered by Grinnell. The current cap is $3,000 per year. Changes would include staggering the loans so students borrow $3,500 in their first year, $4,500 in their second, and $5,500 in their final two.
Grinnell students currently graduate with the least average debt of any school in Iowa, and the administration believes more loans will still be affordable, especially if they modify or forgive loans for alumni with low incomes. This would make a dent in the budget gap but will not make the College solvent alone.
The other options being considered fall into two categories: those that encourage more high-paying students to attend Grinnell without any changes to the school’s need-blind policy and those that modify the need-blind process.
Grinnell may also change the target demographics of each class.
“One of the options that we’ve talked about is the possibility of exercising the option we have now to be need-aware with international students,” Bagnoli said. Administrators are considering an addition of about five more international students per class.
The College could also admit more students from Iowa. Bagnoli said that, on average, Iowans who apply to Grinnell can pay more than the typical applicant, so this would increase net student revenue. Again, they are considering adding about five Iowans to each class.
The Admissions Office might also invest more in recruiting students from wealthy high schools to apply during early decision. This change would raise Grinnell’s image among students who start their college search early. Demographically, those students are able to pay more tuition, and their families often have the resources needed to fund a longer and broader college search.
Another way to attract students who start their search early would be to create a non-binding early action program. This would give the College more time to convince accepted students to attend Grinnell, even if those students are not willing to commit to early decision. A milder version of this plan also being considered is to move up the regular admission deadline for top applicants, preempting other colleges’ acceptance letters. If students are accepted into Grinnell first, Admissions believes they are likelier to attend.
Less likely, though also being considered, are a variety of options that would change or, at best, qualify Grinnell’s need-blind process. The least invasive is to consider need when choosing students from the waiting list, which would not jeopardize Grinnell’s official need-blind status.
Grinnell also considered mimicking a recent change by Wesleyan University, which moved away from need-blind admissions this year. Wesleyan now admits the first 90 percent of their domestic students without considering need, and then balance their budget using the remaining 10 percent of the class.
Even more drastically, Grinnell modeled the possibility of ending need-blind for just early decision, ending need-blind for regular decision, or considering proxies for wealth in most or all admissions. According to the administration, these possibilities would only be seriously considered if the school’s financial situation becomes much worse, for example, if the economy falls back into deep recession.
The College did not even model the possibility of ending its guarantee to meet students’ full demonstrated need.
“We do not intend to fail to meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need,” Bagnoli said. “None of the options that we are discussing create a financial need gap, even for students in the future who will be affected by changes.”
A Course Correction
Jim Swartz, Chemistry, has long been concerned by the College’s finances. Swartz formerly served as Dean of the College and Vice President of Academic Affairs, and he chaired the Distinctiveness Committee of last year’s Strategic Plan. For years now, he’s observed troubling trends.
“Our revenues with students have not been going up, but our costs have been going up,” Swartz said. “To me, it’s not a new thing.”
Grinnell adopted its need-blind and meet-full-need policies for domestic students in the 1980s. Since then, the discount rate, or ratio of financial aid to full tuition, has risen steadily. The small increases in tuition over the past few years did not raise any more revenue, since they were accompanied by equal increases in financial aid. Among schools that are need-blind and meet full need for domestic students, Grinnell stands out for its uniquely low portion of full-paying students.
“Compared to other private institutions, we’re not economically very diverse, and where we’re lacking is at the high-income side of things,” Swartz said.
This forced Grinnell to depend on its endowment, as the cost of providing a college education rose.
“Around the time that I was being selected to be the next president, there was a recognition by the board that the College’s long-term financial well-being needs to be looked at,” Kington said. “I think one of the major motivators for that was the recognition that the endowment was becoming the largest source, by far, of funds for our operating budget.”
A large endowment made this possible. In 2007, Grinnell had the largest endowment among all liberal arts schools, at $1.7 billion. Returns on its investments helped support the College, even with its financial aid commitments. But the 2008 recession changed all of that. Schools across the country were forced to make major changes to their financial policies to survive. For a time, Grinnell was spared.
According to Kington, Grinnell’s large endowment buffered the school from the worst of the recession, saving it from urgent budget cuts that other schools were required to make. Four years later, Grinnell still doesn’t face a budget crisis, but it does need what Bagnoli called a “course correction” to stay in the black.
Setting the Tone
Jon Richardson ’10, the youngest member of the Alumni Council, is proud of how well Grinnell weathered the recent recession.
“Grinnell hasn’t had any layoffs, and that’s remarkable,” he said.
Richardson came to Grinnell with financial aid, and he quickly proved his worth to the Grinnell community. He was a student leader of the Stonewall Resource Center Library and, during his senior year, served on the presidential search committee that selected Kington to be Grinnell’s President.
He hasn’t seen the possible changes that the College is considering (the Alumni Council will be shown the presentation next weekend), but he’s glad that the College is discussing its budget so publicly.
“I think it’s brilliant,” he said. “When a conversation is public, there’s a lot more transparency in what’s actually going on.”
Richardson believes that Grinnell will continue to live up to its values. He has donated to the College each year since he graduated and he said he will continue to donate for years to come.
Current students are also grateful to be included in the budgeting process.
“We are all invested in the success of this institution, and so yes, we should be part of this discussion,” SGA President Colleen Osborne ’13 wrote in an email. “Throughout this process we will maintain the community’s commitment to social justice and equal access to a top liberal arts education.”
After the budget presentation is shown to the trustees and the alumni council next weekend, it will go online as both a powerpoint and a webinar. The website will function as a forum for collecting community opinion and will provide interactive tools so that students can implement the various proposals and see how they affect net revenue.
Kington expects to present the College’s recommendations to the Board of Trustees for a vote at their February meeting. No matter what the outcome, he hopes to have changes put in place soon. Without them, the future of the College’s finances begins to grow uncertain, he said.
“Doing nothing will have costs.”
—Additional writing contributed by Joe Wlos and Nathan Forman.