Admin Responds to Community Concerns About College Finances, Need-Aware Admissions at Student Forum

student forum college finances

Students listen to a presentation from President Kim Benston on Haverford’s finances at a public forum held Monday night

Part one of this piece, a detailed summary of the presentation given by the administration and the models they presented, can be found here.

The first real day of finals usually finds students camped out in Magill or downing coffee at the Coop, but on Monday night, approximately seventy students could be found in the DC at a public forum on Haverford’s financial situation. The administration previewed a presentation they will give to the Board of Managers on Friday about potential models to get the College back to financial equilibrium, then opened the floor to community conversation.

Students raised concerns how each of these models would concretely impact student experience, particularly the diversity of the student body, the current allocation of resources to aid low-income students, and whether the changes aligned with Haverford’s mission.

The forum opened with a presentation from President Kim Benston, Mitch Wein, Vice President of Finance and Chief Administrative Officer, and Jess Lord, Dean of Admissions on Financial Aid. The presentation began with a discussion of Haverford’s finances, then presented potential models for change, and lastly opened the floor to student questions and concerns. Every administrator who spoke emphasized that going need-aware—the main focus of the discussions—is not something they would support if major changes to the College’s budget were not a financial necessity.

The most obvious running theme of student comments was how a proposed switch to partially need-aware admissions fits within the College’s mission and values, particularly its commitment to diversity. This echoed conversations students have been having among themselves since the potential switch to need-aware was announced two weeks ago.

“One of the main pillars of Quakerism, and arguably Haverford itself, is community,” said Abby Reuscher ’17 in an interview after the forum. “Community is holding those with less privilege with more care, and community is need-blind.”

Lord stated that the College’s financial situation has not changed its values, but it has put limitation on how those values can be enacted, something reflected in the models proposed. Benston added that the vast majority of Board members are Haverford graduates and share the values of the student body and the Haverford community and “are struggling deeply with this question.”

While students, faculty, and staff are more focused on the day-to-day implementation of Haverford’s mission and values, the Board is tasked with ensuring the mission is implemented at the College in perpetuity and that future generations enjoy the same quality of student experience and academic excellence as the current cohort, said Benston.

In discussions that happened in advance of Friday’s meeting, Board members have raised many of the same questions as students about the College’s mission and values, the impact a change in aid policy could have on the composition of the student body, and how campus resources can better serve low-income students, said Jesse Lytle, Chief of Staff.

Students also raised concerns about the concrete impacts of moving to need-aware admissions and the problems associated with having a less diverse community. “The student who needs absolutely no aid at all is still affected [by need-aware admissions] because this changes who that student sits next to in class, the way they view their hall mates and custom team members, and the way that student learns about different privileges and ways of life,” said Reuscher. Students also worried that a drop in socioeconomic diversity would correlate with a drop in racial and ethnic diversity.

“We can’t deny that there would be some element of change” to socioeconomic diversity, said Benston, though he and Lord emphasized that they could not predict how large this change might be. “Part of the implementation process is to examine changes to the composition of the student body as we go along,” he added. “If we found a significant problem, adjustments would be made.”

For students considered under need-aware policies, being able to pay full tuition would also not guarantee enrollment, said Benston. If the school needed $60,000 extra in tuition revenue, they could enroll one student paying full price or three students paying $20,000 each. Need-aware may actually allow the College to better represent middle class students, he added.

One student raised a concern that not only would the composition of enrolled students become less socioeconomically diverse, but the applicant pool would as well. He noted that had Haverford been need-aware when he was looking at colleges, he would not have applied.

Lord said he shared these concerns, and it will be the task of the admissions office to ensure a need-aware label would not deter low-income students. He stated that programs such as Questbridge would not be cut, and the College would continue to meet the full demonstrated need of admitted students. Switching to a need-aware admissions process may also allow the College to reopen conversations about admitting undocumented students or increasing financial aid for international students, he added.

Benston tied these comments to the general state of higher education, pointing out that almost all other colleges are facing similar problems, most to a much more extreme degree. Being both need-blind and meeting full demonstrated need is increasing in rarity. Structural factors such as the economic downturn following the 2008 crash and rising income inequality both compound the already complex nature of college finances, particularly when it comes to financial aid and socioeconomic diversity.

Wesleyan, which switched from need-blind to need-aware in 2012 after facing similar financial problems, and Carleton, which has been need-aware since long before the recession, were brought up several times as models for how to implement a need-aware policy with minimal impact on the student body.

The discussion then turned to how students from low-income backgrounds are being supported once they arrive at Haverford. “It’s more important to support [low-income] students we bring in rather than focus on some socioeconomic diversity quota,” said one senior, adding that he was a beneficiary of Haverford’s former no-loans policy.

There has been an ongoing discussion about how the College can better serve low-income students and others from underrepresented backgrounds, said Martha Denney, Dean of Students. “We don’t want to to invite students into the community who we then can’t support because of our limited resources,” she added. “It would be a disservice to [those students].”

A change in the College’s financial situation could allow for greater expansion of existing resources, said Benston. Some examples given were an increase in money available for summer internships or providing travel stipends to those on financial aid, things the College has been unable to do because of the deficit. Another student objected that having a greater diversity of students was in and of itself a resource, however.

Once the College returns to a net positive operating budget, programs and projects the administration has been deferring due to lack of resources could also be reopened. “If you’re at financial equilibrium, you can appropriately resource good ideas and good initiatives,” said Wein in an interview after the forum. Being in deficit “means there are more good ideas than there are resources.”

Students also asked questions about Haverford’s finances more generally, such as why such a sizable portion of the “Lives the Speak” campaign is funding large construction projects when the College is in deficit.

Benston first noted that the money alums donate to the campaign is often earmarked for specific projects, thus the College has less control over where it goes than may be apparent, and that no money beyond what is raised will be spent on large capital projects such as the Magill renovations. “[Many of these buildings] are falling apart” and repairs have become a necessity, he added. Projects such as the Visual Culture Arts + Media space being built in Ryan Gym will also help attract high-quality students and faculty.

Another student questioned whether the College could cut spending elsewhere, such as the money allocated for athletics or student activities. Denney replied that even if the College eliminated all the spending mentioned plus that for other resources such as Health Services, it would only allow one extra student to come to Haverford each year. “It’s really a question of scale,” she said.

Benston added that there has already been a substantial effort to make current operations budgets more efficient, but that cutting such programs would cause “significant wounds” to the student experience the College hopes to provide.

The administration will present to the Board on Friday, including summarizing community concerns such as those brought up at the forum. It is up to them to make any final decision, though Benston said they will consider student feedback in that process. He urged any student who has concerns or questions to email him.

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