I'm the VP of admissions at a small liberal-arts college. Early decision favors the wealthy — here's one way to fix it.
- Adam Miller is the interim vice president for admissions and financial aid at Whitman College.
- He says the college-admissions process and early decision favor the rich and influential.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Adam Miller, the interim vice president for admissions and financial aid at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The college-admissions process has historically favored the wealthy and well connected. While early decision is just one aspect of the overarching process, it largely exemplifies that sentiment because it essentially asks students to engage in a binding agreement with a school — before knowing the cost of doing so.
That's a luxury most students and their families can't afford.
All schools have a financial-out clause should one be unable to afford the cost, but that's a suboptimal outcome because you shouldn't have to wait for an acceptance offer to discover your financial-aid package didn't work out.
I don't have intimate knowledge of how financial aid plays out at all colleges, but I've worked at enough of them and been in the field long enough to know that many families face fear, worry, anxiety, and uncertainty. I served as the director of admissions at Whitman College for nearly 10 years, and this year, I've shifted gears and am now the school's interim vice president for admissions and financial aid.
While net-price calculators featured on university websites can be helpful tools, they're limited in several important ways
In addition to the calculators not taking merit scholarships into account, they typically reflect the average financial aid based on the prior year's data, which doesn't capture the reality that some colleges package students differently despite their similar financial circumstances. They may also not reflect changes in a college's financial-aid policies or the total cost of attendance, which can be updated yearly.
These calculators also rely on self-reported data from families, and some families aren't necessarily using hard numbers or are often using estimates in terms of their income and asset values. In other words, if you put garbage in, you're going to get garbage out.
In 2019, with the goal of front-loading the financial-aid piece of the conversation, we piloted a service at Whitman in the form of an estimator. Unlike early decision, the estimator wasn't a binding agreement but a way for families to determine what their financial-aid packages would look like if they were accepted.
The first year, we promoted the offering to 100 families. We wound up getting very positive feedback, especially from some low-income families. The offering has since developed into our early financial-aid guarantee, which, like our original estimator, doesn't require you to apply to Whitman. Instead, it gives a student and their family a true sense of what it will cost them so they can then determine whether it makes sense for them to apply.
While transparency alone doesn't solve the problem, it certainly helps
It doesn't serve anyone's interest to keep families in the dark about finances. If the money doesn't work out, it seems to make more sense to know that going into the process than on the back end.
I can see why Whitman's model might be a challenge for larger, hyperselective schools that are inundated with applications. In 2021, we had roughly 5,600 applicants — 48% of which were accepted.
Last year, 301 people applied for the early financial-aid guarantee, and 237 of them wound up applying to Whitman — 63 applied early decision. Since we admit about half the students who apply for the guarantee, we aren't just doing a bunch of work for students who are going to be denied down the road. Our office has four financial-aid staffers who process the 2,600 students who get admitted. It's a lift, but not a huge lift, to offer the guarantee.
If we had 50,000 applications and lower admission rates, I could see that posing a lot of operational challenges. In that kind of scenario, you might be providing a great service to a family but are doing extra work for a large chunk of students who may not be offered admission. It might not feel like the best use of the staff's time.
Eighty percent of Whitman's $40 million financial-aid budget goes toward needs-based aid, with the remaining 20% awarded in merit-based scholarships. If a family applies for the early financial-aid guarantee in October, we can say it's the same package that they would get if they were sending in their forms in February, and I don't think that's true for every college.
In addition to access to cost, a big challenge is access to information
While there's a ton of freely available college information online, it can feel overwhelming for students to wade through a sea of information, separate rhetoric from reality, and figure out which colleges are a good fit.
Students from more-affluent backgrounds have an advantage in this area because they're more likely to have parents who attended college, and they're more likely to have college counselors at school or a hired independent consultant to help them navigate the search process.
These students are also more likely to be able to afford the cost of traveling to visit colleges far from home, so while many colleges work hard to ensure information is available online and even have staff who travel extensively to meet students in their hometowns, families that aren't familiar with the college search are left at an informational disadvantage.
It makes me sad that a lot of folks see looking at colleges as a bottom-line consumer choice
Too often, people compare finding a college to what it's like shopping around for a car, but we should view it more like the start of a friendship or relationship.
The goal of the college search is to find a college that's a good fit for you, and that fit happens on several levels — academics, social life, community, preparation for life after college, and finances. Aside from the financial fit, those elements are relational, not transactional.
You're not simply choosing the name of the school listed on your degree — you're choosing your neighborhood, your peer group, your mentors, and an institution you'll be affiliated with for the rest of your life.
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