Verbum Ultimum: Poorly Executed Policy

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 9/24/15 7:04pm

Last week, the College ended its eight-year-old “need-blind” policy for international applicants in favor of a “need-aware” policy, meaning that the College will consider the financial need of international applicants as an admissions criterion. College spokesperson Diana Lawrence has stated that the goal is “to increase and stabilize” the international student population on campus.

Our primary concern is that the College has again exhibited a glaring lack of transparency in making this decision. We believe that there may be justifiable reasons to return to need-aware admissions for international applicants, but we are ultimately disappointed that the College has not been more tactful and upfront about the factors that motivated this policy change.

This announcement should not have taken international students, nor the rest of the Dartmouth community, by surprise. The apparent lack of even a superficial effort to collect community input does not inspire confidence. Instead, we must be satisfied with the provided administrative talking points — which are wholly unsatisfactory. The justification that need-aware international admissions will bring the College more in line with its peers is particularly deficient. Dartmouth was a leader among its peers with respect to international admissions — this is one area where we should not conform.

Then there is the issue of money, which is clearly a central consideration in any change to financial aid policy. Yet any detail about the costs of the previous policy or the predicted savings from the new one is conspicuously absent from administrators’ initial comments. When asked for further comment, Lawrence wrote in a follow-up email that elaborated on the goals of the policy. But even now, we must decipher administrators’ sometimes-cryptic remarks.

Though we generally do not reproduce emailed statements in full, we believe that it is important to provide Lawrence’s response without paraphrase. Lawrence wrote that the policy change “frees up funds and allows us to strengthen our financial aid offers to the students we admit. This will help us compete with our peers for newly admitted students.” While this is a worthy goal, the College should not have left students and the broader public in the dark about the benefits it seeks.

She continued to write that the overall financial aid budget will not be reduced and that the College will still meet 100 percent of demonstrated need for admitted students, international or otherwise. Lawrence wrote that this policy “does not alter our pursuit of the most talented and accomplished students, no matter where they reside” and will allow the College to “recruit those we admit.” Finally, she wrote that the College anticipates a trend of increased enrollment of international students, but that administrators are willing to revisit the policy if they do not see the intended results.

We appreciate the added detail, but precisely how the policy will enact these changes remains somewhat elusive. At the same time, the potential costs of this policy change do not. They are obvious to many students, as evidenced by the numerous columns submitted to this paper protesting need-aware international admissions and mounting student opposition.

The College, compared to its peers, suffers from poor name recognition overseas. By all accounts, need-blind admissions for international applicants provided students who had never heard of Dartmouth with a compelling reason to apply, and this surely encouraged a greater degree of socioeconomic diversity in the international applicant pool. We cannot see how this change can have anything other than a negative effect on the College’s reputation and its appeal.

What is most regrettable is that this decision reflects poorly on Dartmouth chiefly because of the opaque reasoning. Ending need-blind international admissions could potentially be a wise choice — if that means that the College can devote more resources to recruiting low-income American students. Schools in rural parts of the country remain low on the priority list of the admissions offices of elite universities.

The College has a much better chance of improving socioeconomic diversity — 11 percent of students at Dartmouth come from families with incomes in the bottom 40 percent of U.S. households — if it gets serious about attracting talented students from outside its established sources of applicants.

Administrators could have used this opportunity to announce a new approach to admissions that would have placed the end of need-blind international admissions in the context of a renewed commitment to attracting students from all income brackets in the U.S. — and do so transparently. At a time of administrative turnover in the admissions office, it would have been a bold signal of leadership. And though we hope for a more detailed plan for the use of these freed up funds, in the meantime, the College’s name has undoubtedly taken a hit.