Chamseddine: The Myth of “Need-Aware”

by Reem Chamseddine | 9/23/15 6:30pm

The College’s decision to end need-blind admissions for international students is unfortunate. Its misguidedness is only surpassed by the incoherence of the justification that has been presented to the public. Though there has been much discussion of the policy shift in these pages, I wish to add my perspective as an international student and dispel some myths about the issue.

The first myth is that the new policy will stabilize and increase international enrollment at Dartmouth. Paul Sunde, interim dean of admissions and financial aid, wrote in an email to The Dartmouth last week that the change will help the College do a better job of developing a “robust” and “stable” enrolling class. Sunde wrote that the new policy is part of a broader effort to encourage international students to apply to the College and attend upon admission. According to College spokesperson Diana Lawrence, the College hopes not only to “increase and stabilize” the population of international students on campus but also to enroll a class that showcases diversity in a multitude of ways.

Yet, if reverting back to a need-aware policy is so beneficial to the diversity and stability of the incoming international class, I can’t help but wonder why the College doesn’t adopt the same policy for domestic students. Dartmouth often prides itself on the diverse backgrounds, including socioeconomic, represented in its student body. It seems unlikely, however, that the College can have a diverse domestic population and a diverse international population while employing different financial aid policies for each. There is a fundamental inconsistency in claiming that this practice will diversify international enrollment, while maintaining need-blind policies for domestic enrollment.

The second myth is that this decision is justifiable by the fact that all but a few of our peer institutions do not have a need-blind admissions for international students policy, as Lawrence specified in The Dartmouth’s Sept. 18 article. What should not be left unmentioned, however, is that the institutions who do follow a need-blind policy for international students are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Amherst College and Harvard, Princeton and Yale Universities — all elite, world-class institutions. Dropping the policy means the College is lowering its ethos. Why does it matter if the new policy resembles that of many other schools, when it is clear that the schools who adopt a need-blind policy are some of the best in the nation?

The third myth is that the College can not afford a need-blind policy for international students. While it is true that Dartmouth has a smaller endowment than most schools still offering need-blind admissions for foreign applicants, it is also significantly smaller in terms of student body and its international student population usually does not exceed nine percent — comparable to the 12.2 percent at Harvard, 14 percent at Princeton and 11 percent at Yale for each institution’s respective Class of 2019. The total institutional operating expenses for the College were $853 million in 2014, and Dartmouth is sitting on a $4.47 billion endowment. When international need-blind admission was enacted in 2011, the endowment was only $3.4 billion. In light of these numbers, justifying the decision on financial grounds is nonsensical.

The fourth and final myth is that this policy adjustment will not shift perceptions of Dartmouth for international students. The College may not be as well-known outside the United States as other elite universities, but many foreign applicants do know about Dartmouth for its prestige, history, community and alumni. The need-blind policy encourages many students to apply because it assures them that their parents’ income will not make their achievements, intelligence and hard work less impressive. The need-blind policy reminds anxious, low-income international students that they, too, are valid candidates for Dartmouth. It helps students who are hesitant to pay the application fee for fear of outright rejection from an Ivy League to go ahead and try. And if there are students who truly only apply to the College because of the need-blind policy, is that so bad? These students may realize that the only way for their application to be considered seriously is through a need-blind reading of all applicants. They may expect that their application will be disregarded when compared to a similar, foreign applicant who is not seeking financial assistance.

Reverting back to a need-aware admissions policy suggests, at least on the international level, that Dartmouth is an exclusive institution for wealthy students. I would urge administrators involved to reconsider this decision, so that our beloved College can continue to be a home for the most promising minds around the world.