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[Brian Rosenberg] need-blind policy change

From: Jeanne Morales
To: annouce list
Sent: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 9:18 AM
Subject: A message from President Rosenberg

To all members of the Macalester community:

At their meeting on January 7, 2005, the Macalester Board of Trustees approved unanimously the following resolution regarding financial aid policies at the college:

Financial aid policies shall be maintained to meet the full financial need of all admitted students.
The College shall establish a specific budget for financial aid. This budget shall be used to maintain an economically diverse student body while supporting Macalester’s mission of academic excellence with special emphasis on multiculturalism, internationalism, and service to society.
Periodic reports shall be made by the College administration to the Board of Trustees to ensure that the College is meeting the aforementioned goals.

Given the many discussions of financial aid that have taken place on and off campus during the past several months, it seems critical that I underscore again the reasons behind the passage of this motion, what the action means, and­of equal importance­what it does not mean for Macalester’s commitment to access.

I should begin by addressing the concerns of those who question why the Board made this decision in January, when many students have been arguing for a delay until March or May or beyond. Rest assured that those arguments were communicated to the Trustees, who heard at their meeting from the President of MCSG and from other students opposed to a change in policy. I could provide you with any number of reasons for the decision to act now: the fact that our Admissions and Financial Aid offices will need time to plan for a thoughtful implementation of a new policy by the fall of 2006; that we need to be able to describe our policies accurately and openly to current high school juniors, who between now and May will begin looking at Macalester; that even with a decision now, it will not be until 2010 until the new policy is fully implemented. All this is true. More important, however, may be the observation that individuals simply reach a point when they are convinced that an action is right and necessary, that the members of the Board reached that point some time ago, and that to delay acting under those circumstances would be both ineffectual and dishonest. Ultimately the Trustees did not want to pretend to a hesitation that did not in fact exist.

To those who have been following this discussion, I would guess, much of what I have to say will be old news. For a variety of reasons, Macalester derives less revenue from tuition that do virtually all colleges of similar kind and quality: our comprehensive fee, however high it might appear, is actually among the lowest in our peer group; because about 75 percent of our students receive financial aid grants­most of them need-based­only one in four pay that fee; both the number of students on aid and the discount rate, or the percentage of tuition that students do not pay, have been rising at a rate faster than that at other colleges. The discount rate for first-year students in 2004-2005 has reached 47.4 percent, the highest in the college’s history, dramatically higher than the rate at virtually all need-blind colleges, and nearly double what it was at Macalester only 20 years ago.

Some have contended that what is happening at peer institutions is irrelevant; that the fact that we can spend many fewer dollars per student than other colleges is simply a tribute to our efficiency and ingenuity; and that we should define our goals and expectations wholly in reference to a set of internal standards. I believe this position to be incorrect­that is, I believe that any enterprise must avoid isolationism and benchmark itself against its peers and that, moreover, comparing colleges is precisely and appropriately what prospective students do when making one of the most consequential decisions of their lives. Even if we ignore other colleges altogether, however, we have plenty of internal indicators that signal a persistent budgeting problem, including our almost uniquely low staffing levels, our inability to increase budgets in the library and academic programs even to keep pace with inflation, and our inability to add programs and services widely acknowledged to be desirable for our students.

Some have argued, too, that this extraordinary commitment to financial aid should be cause for celebration rather than concern and, in truth, it is something of which Macalester can be deeply proud. But a commitment to aid is not and cannot be our only commitment, given our fundamental mission. We pledge as well to meet the educational needs of those students who do enroll in the college, and our increasing emphasis on aid has meant a proportionately decreasing emphasis on all other priorities at Macalester. We are fast approaching the point at which those students who do pay full tuition at the college will actually be paying more than we are spending on their education­will actually, in other words, be getting less than they are paying for. To reach that point, it seems to me, would be to break faith with a commitment of no little importance.

For anyone charged with the stewardship of Macalester to ignore these circumstances would be irresponsibility of the highest order. Such ignorance would certainly be possible: as many have pointed out, Macalester faces no imminent fiscal crisis, is not in danger of closing its doors, and continues to find ways to pay its bills and serve its students. But we would be purchasing our current peace at the expense of future students, faculty, and staff, who would someday and inevitably be confronted by a problem even more acute and more difficult to solve than the one we face today. It would be easier to ignore this challenge­this I know better than anyone­but it would be wrong to do so.

The trustees’ action declares simply that our commitment to financial aid shall and must be part of the same challenging and careful deliberations as are our other fundamental commitments: to providing first-rate academic programs, to creating a diverse and supportive community, to compensating our employees fairly and competitively, to preserving the campus for future generations. No one would argue, I think, that Macalester considers any of these unimportant because we engage each year in intense discussions that attempt to balance our desires and our resources; no one should assume that financial aid will suddenly become unimportant as we make it part of those discussions.

What precisely does the decision by the Board of Trustees not mean? It does not mean that we will end our commitment to meeting the full demonstrated need of every entering student: every student we admit will continue to be provided with an aid package that enables her or him to attend Macalester. It does not mean that we will admit all domestic students on a need-aware basis or that the most needy students will be affected the most: the vast majority of domestic applicants will continue to be admitted on a need-blind basis. In practice we expect that well over 90 percent of our admissions decisions for domestic students will continue to be made precisely as they are today and that by any conceivable measure­discount rate, percentage of students on aid, average aid award­Macalester will remain among the most accessible and economically diverse liberal arts colleges in the country.

There are those, finally, who would contend that by failing to include strict and specific guidelines in their motion, the trustees have placed too much trust in the staff and administration of the college. Only time can provide a definitive response to such arguments. I believe, however, that the trustees have very deliberately taken the position that the Macalester community needs to be trusted in this area, as in others, to act in ways consistent with the mission and purpose of the college and that to micro-manage the process would be to declare a lack of confidence in its willingness and ability to do so. The truth is that we already have a demonstration of how the college behaves absent the guidelines of a need-blind admissions policy. We have never been need-blind for international students, and yet­unlike the vast majority of our peers­we consistently admit a diverse, gifted, and high-need group of students from around the world whose average discount rate is actually higher than that for domestic students. We could make other choices; the fact that we do not, and that we use the resources of the college so clearly to support its mission, is the best evidence I can imagine to suggest how we will behave now and in the future. History has taught us pretty clearly that those who cannot be trusted to adhere to principle without imposed rules generally cannot be trusted to adhere to principle with them.

Thank you all for your passionate engagement in this discussion and for your many thoughtful questions and ideas. Particular thanks are due to the students who worked with great energy and care on the “Defend Need Blind Admissions at Macalester” report. Though I differ with some of the assumptions and conclusions in the report, I admire its quality and larger goals. More important in the end than the authors’ disagreement with the Board or dissatisfaction with my leadership will, I hope, be their enhanced understanding of the challenges we face and their deep and abiding allegiance to our great college.

Brian Rosenberg

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