LAKS: A Dissenting Opinion on the F4A Response to the No Loan Decision

BY JONATHAN LAKS ’14

I would like to take a step back from the Board’s particular decision, looking at (1) financial aid policy in a broader context, and (2) Haverford’s social-structural position as an elite liberal arts college. I maintain not only that the Board’s decision and justification was financially unsound, but that it reflects and reveals larger institutional tensions between Haverford’s elitist history and a developing new era for top-tier higher education.

Before beginning I would like to make explicit that I am a white male student from upper-class background who is not on financial aid.

Editor’s Note: Laks’ piece is in response to a statement released by Fords for Affordability (F4A).

Admissions and Financial Aid Overview

Haverford’s “no-loan” policy was only one component of a large, complicated admissions and financial aid policy. Like many of its peers, Haverford advertises itself as (1) having need-blind admission and (2) meeting full demonstrated financial need; each of these slogans expresses a partial truth about their respective policies. The concept of need-blind admission does not take into account who applies to Haverford, or more precisely, how the admissions office recruits and how it portrays the College. The policy of “meeting full demonstrated need” is meaningful only when it is contextualized by Haverford’s specific formula for determining financial need.

Haverford’s admissions office has very specific recruiting policies, especially for potential low-income and non-white applicants. Haverford primarily recruits its lowest income students through programs such as Questbridge, which students (a) already have a certain legitimacy and therefore will likely be accepted by many top-tier colleges and universities, and (b) receive full-need, no-loan, and sometimes no-work-study financial aid packages at any institution they attend through the program. Most other low-income Haverford students come from boarding schools or other private schools, where they had received full scholarship, and which again puts them in a relatively privileged position as compared to other high-need potential applicants who have not received those forms of legitimation (often, by the way, as part of token financial diversity policies at those schools).

Thus the vast majority of students from low-income families do not experience Haverford as a “need-blind” institution. For example, Haverford deliberately does not recruit at Philadelphia public schools, regardless of their “performance”; consequently many Philadelphia high school students have not heard of Haverford and do not apply. This is only one of the ways in which the College minimizes the average financial need of its applicants, and thereby minimizes the total amount of financial aid it awards.

As to “meeting full demonstrated need,” Haverford’s financial aid formula is not publicized, as is the case at many other schools, but there are a few things we do know. Haverford clearly does not have as generous a formula as schools such as Harvard, which automatically considers applicants whose families have incomes under $60K to be full-need and does not require them to pay any tuition. We can also examine the “Common Data Set” report statistics to ascertain additional information about both Haverford’s aid and admissions policies.

President Dan Weiss has repeatedly made a point of emphasizing that under no-loan Haverford had an exceptionally “generous” financial aid policy compared to its peers. The Common Data Set statistics demonstrate that this claim holds at the level of slogans but not on the ground. For example, Bryn Mawr College, which does not have need-blind admission, nevertheless determines as much or a little more financial need on average per student than Haverford: both schools determine about half of students to have financial need, assigning an average of $40K aid to each of those students. (Bryn Mawr’s tuition is lower than Haverford’s so equal aid packages implies greater need of Bryn Mawr students.) Wesleyan and Reed, schools that have recently adopted need-sensitive admission policies, also meet or exceed Haverford’s socio-economic diversity. As for strictly grant aid given, under “no-loan” Haverford total aid level per student (discount rate) was slightly ahead of Bryn Mawr, equal with Wesleyan, and behind Reed.

Haverford’s Position as an Elite Liberal Arts College

Haverford’s status places it in a position both to create opportunities for students from marginalized backgrounds, and at the same time makes it a gatekeeper for the existing ruling class. It is still relatively recently that elite higher education has not been reserved for the sons of rich white people, and the future landscape of higher education as many access barriers are broken down is still unclear. Haverford’s admissions and financial aid policies demonstrate a lack of confidence as to whether students from marginalized backgrounds can really become world leaders, promote the College’s reputation, and give back to the College.

The elimination of the no-loan policy, as Fords for Affordability argued to the Board, is less about a potential 3% savings in the annual financial aid budget than about changing the composition of future Haverford alumni. But it is also not the only sort of aid policy Haverford could adopt to support its low- and middle-income students. Haverford could adopt a policy like Harvard’s and require no family contribution for a larger range of families. Haverford could ensure prestigious summer internships each year for all of its students on financial aid, or on some minimum level of aid, since lower-income students are more likely to be relying exclusively on Haverford’s network for summer and post-grad employment opportunities.

I want to make a few remarks about the claim that Haverford “cannot afford [policies such as no-loan] in the long run.” First, the College simply does not know what policies are or are not sustainable in the long run because higher education, including elite higher education, is changing so quickly, both in terms of cost of attendance and financial aid, and in terms of the job markets that are and are not available, particularly the increasing scarcity of academic jobs.

I also contend that these policies actually make Haverford more financially sustainable. In making a $40K investment on the average student on financial aid, Haverford is not only committing to a level of accessibility that is expected of all top-tier colleges, but also investing additionally in those students in order to spread its reputation beyond rich white communities, and with the expectation that those students will ‘give back’ as much or more than privileged students do. Both of these outcomes, however, are contingent on their being fully supported as students while they are here, both socially and financially. Since as a small liberal arts college Haverford’s investment is almost completely in its students and alumni, it would me much smarter to invest fully in all its students, rather than provide the bare minimum level of support to enable low-income and otherwise disadvantaged students to attend.

This is the direction in which Haverford needs to move. Whereas wealthy alumni who relied on family connections and not just their Haverford degree may not be sufficiently invested in Haverford to want to give back, low-income students, especially those who did not have the opportunity to go through programs like Questbridge, would be more likely to want to give back if their student experience were fully supported by the College. Unfortunately for both them and the financial future of Haverford, its current policies do not support that this is the case.

As long as Haverford continues to lag behind its peers in socio-economic and racial diversity, and specifically its lack of non-white students from urban public (and not charter) high schools; maintains a bare minimum approach to financial aid; and leaves low-income students on their own to find summer and post-grad employment opportunities, the CPGC excepted; Haverford is developing an image that it is only accepting low-income and non-white students at token levels and does not care whether they are supported or not. It does not matter what admissions or any other office says to the contrary: as long as the current recruitment and financial aid policies are maintained, Haverford loses an opportunity to fully capitalize on its investment in its marginalized students. This – not the no-loan policy, a more generous financial aid formula, or more equitable recruitment policies – is the greatest threat to Haverford’s long-term sustainability, both financially and as a top-tier liberal arts college.

1 Response

  1. Haverfordian says:

    If only everybody understood how true that second to last paragraph is…

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