The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News November 4, 2005

The evolution of financial aid policy explored
Discussing Financial Aid: Prodesor Rupert Wilkinson of the University of Sussex discussed Oberlin’s financial ad.

Students who were on campus last year most likely remember the financial struggles that led to the elimination of the Oberlin-in-London program and a plan to cut the size of the student and faculty body over the next few years. This past Wednesday, Rupert Wilkinson, professor emeritus of American studies and history at the University of Sussex in England, shed light on another consequence of Oberlin’s monetary difficulties: the 1994 institution of a “need-aware” financial aid policy in the student admissions office.

Wilkinson is the author of the recently-published book Aiding Students, Buying Students: Financial Aid in America, a comprehensive study and history of financial aid policies at various institutions, including Oberlin College. A need-aware policy, he explained, takes a student’s economic status and need for financial assistance into consideration when making the decision of whether to admit the student into a given institution. This policy is in opposition to a “need-blind” policy, which does not let economic status or need for financial assistance play a role in admissions decisions.

Before launching into what he referred to as “the troubled journey to 1994, when Oberlin College went need-aware,” Wilkinson offered his assessment of Oberlin as an institution.

“Oberlin’s sense of identity is bound up in its being the first co-ed college, and the first to admit African Americans,” he said. “There is a commitment to academic excellence with high proportions of students going on to grad schools...artistic and musical dimensions are represented by the Conservatory.

“But all these things cost money,” he continued, turning serious. He spoke of Oberlin’s struggle to balance a progressive, egalitarian and liberal spirit and multitudes of resources with the need to maintain economic stability.

“There are tensions between access and essence [at Oberlin],” Wilkinson said.

“From the early 1980s onward, private college tuitions, especially at elite colleges [like Oberlin], started to grow, not only faster than prices, but faster than need and income as well,” he explained. “The escalation of Oberlin’s spending on grant aids from 12 percent in the ’80s increased to 20 percent in the early ’90s.”

As financial concerns grew, Oberlin began to ask to whom, exactly, it owed its responsibilities. Could it best serve its students, for instance, by providing them with a wide range of course offerings and guest speakers to enrich their college experiences, or by helping each and every student who could not afford to pay the full tuition attend Oberlin and receive a higher education?

“There was a general attempt to buy the best of everything,” Wilkinson said. “There is no limit to competitive efforts.”

He then told the story of how once, at an Oberlin faculty meeting, “a faculty member proposed not curbing financial aid, but rather reducing Oberlin’s other costs by reducing the range of what Oberlin offered.”

Wilkinson declared this suggestion “impractical, and even naïve,” because it would ultimately weaken Oberlin’s standing and appeal as a historically elite institution.

It was finally determined by the administration that Oberlin could not be need-blind in order to maintain its quality of excellence, to which Wilkinson expressed his discomfort.

“The very idea that a college should actually exclude students on the basis of money is not pretty,” he said. “But what are the other alternatives?

“[At other colleges] the [need-blind] system takes both will and lots of resources and, I have to say, high academic selectivity so that not many students [with financial assistance] will apply,” said Wilkinson.

“[In contrast] some of the less-strong need-blind colleges in the 1990s directly, or indirectly, told me that they could only stay need-blind by not trying so hard [to be the best] in order not to attract too many lower-income students,” he continued.

Oberlin, however, is in a bind because it does not want to get to the point where there is little socioeconomic diversity in the student body, but it also does not want to downplay itself as a less-than-prestigious institution for the sole purpose of assisting all of its students in financial need.

Wilkinson then arrived at what he referred to as his “semi-surprise ending”: a survey of the 25-top rated liberal arts colleges recently showed that Oberlin, Smith and Mt. Holyoke were the top three colleges with the highest proportions of low-income students. In addition, all three colleges had need-aware financial aid policies.

“Oberlin’s not only need-aware, but there is nothing especially generous or unique about its financial aid,” said Wilkinson, adding to the unexpected survey results.

But what would account for this high percentage?

Oberlin, he explained, has a long tradition of giving aid to low-income students. While many schools use their need-aware policy to exclude financially needy students, Oberlin oftentimes — though not all the time — uses their need-aware policy to include them if they are qualified candidates otherwise.

“At some elite colleges, even a high-scoring low-income student gets no admissions tip on the basis of low income,” said Wilkinson. “Though these colleges are saying, ‘Oh, we want socioeconomic diversity, we want to reward students who have come through struggles,’ they give no admissions tip. This is not true of Oberlin.”

Wilkinson also referred to Oberlin’s longstanding reputation of attracting more low-income and minority students because of its progressive history.

“It is clear that the financial aid is only one part of what it takes to attract disadvantaged students to a place like Oberlin,” he concluded. “And that’s my note to end on.”


Powered by