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George Washington University’s misrepresentation of its ‘need-blind’ admissions policy is disturbing

The GW Hatchet, George Washington University’s independent student newspaper, scored a scoop Monday. It brought to light that the D.C.-based university had been misrepresenting its admissions policy for years. GW had regularly claimed that it did not factor financial need into admissions. But in fact, the university places hundreds of applicants on the waitlist each year because they cannot pay GW’s tuition.

GW’s tuition, by the way, stood at $47,290 in the 2013-14 academic year. Add in the school’s estimated room and board — nearly $11,000 a year — and you have one of the most expensive colleges in the U.S.

The Hatchet reported that students who meet GW’s admissions standards, but who are not among the top undergraduate applicants, are often moved from “admitted” to “waitlisted” if they need financial aid from the school.

GW admissions officers do not consider financial need during the first round of application-reading. But after the first round, senior admissions officials review applications and determine which students the school can afford to admit.

These second-round decisions affect up to 10 percent of GW’s 22,000 or so applicants each year, the Hatchet reported. Wealthier students initially slated to land on the waitlist are accepted. And poorer students who pass muster in the first round of application-reading receive what is a de facto rejection: in 2012, fewer than 1 percent of waitlisted students got into GW.

Despite its habit of pushing needy but qualified applicants on the waitlist, GW characterized its admissions policy as “need-blind” for years. Only this weekend did the school update its undergraduate admissions web page to re-characterize its policy as “need-aware.”

The term “need-aware” comes across as a callous euphemism. It is, however, a fairly mainstream term in the college admissions world. The reason why you probably haven’t heard the term “need-aware” is that colleges who practice need-aware admissions are unlikely to trumpet it too loudly. In a need-aware admissions system, some applicants are admitted without regard for their financial circumstances. But the university reserves the option of considering the ability of some applicants to pay. Tufts and Wesleyan are among the prominent colleges that have adopted need-aware policies in recent years.

A need-aware policy is not in itself shocking. A need-blind admissions process seems preferable — to us, at least — because it ensures class diversity and guarantees that academic merit, not wealth, determines admissions. But a need-aware policy gives colleges more control over how much they spend on aid.

What is shocking about the GW situation is the school’s shamelessness in falsely advertising itself as a need-blind school. This deception is troubling on multiple counts. First, and most obviously, it misleads applicants who need financial aid. Second, the school wrongly profited from the “feel-good” effects of a need-blind policy. People like need-blind policies because such policies distract from the fact that universities are businesses, and they indicate a school’s commitment to diversity.

Third, this is not the first time GW has been caught lying about its admissions processes. Last November the school admitted that it had overstated the academic record of students who entered in fall 2011. GW had reported that 78 percent had graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes when 58 percent had done so. The U.S. News & World Report removed GW from its 2012 rankings after the school disclosed that it had inflated its freshmen’s credentials.

We appreciate the school coming clean about its admissions policies. But GW officials are continuing to equivocate. Laurie Koehler, GW’s senior associate provost for enrollment management (a corporate-sounding title that fits a corporate-sounding policy), said in a statement released Monday evening that the school’s need-aware policy actually helped students who need financial aid. Koehler said that the policy “enables the university to provide more attractive aid packages for students with financial need while staying within our aid budget.”

This assertion sounds ludicrous on its face. The school is moving needy applicants onto the waitlist, yet it maintains that its policy is good for students with financial need. The only plausible interpretation of Koehler’s statement is that the need-aware policy allows the school to offer more aid to fewer applicants, rather than less aid to more applicants. If this is the case, the policy helps some students with financial need — but it prevents other needy-but-deserving students from gaining admission in the first place.

The GW administration must stop attempting to justify its dishonesty. To regain the public trust, the school must put forth neither equivocation nor explanation. Instead, it should offer an apology.