Grinnell to Poor Kids: Dance Backwards


“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, just backwards and in high heels.”

–Frank and Ernest

As I checked my Twitter feed this morning, the tweets came fast and furious: Grinnell College will stay need blind, but will think about raising loan caps and will try to recruit more wealthy students.

Read it again.

I’m normally contrarian, of course, but even I hardly know where to begin. (Time for full disclosure: I used to work at Grinnell, as Associate Director of Admissions from 1990 to 1993; I know how hard it is to recruit nationally to the middle of Iowa.)

The term “need-blind.”

First, to summarize my frequent rants about this stuff:  There is no such thing as need blind admissions.  It may be true that admissions officers don’t see the FAFSA results in their deliberations.  That’s not need blind, for the simple reason that you can still easily see:

  • How (and if) the parents are employed.  Nurse, plumber, teacher, lawyer, neurosurgeon, warehouse inventory manager, corporate acquisition specialist.  All the same?
  • The school the student attends: Garfield, New Trier, Madame Curie, Choate-Rosemary, Minneapolis South, Harvard-Westlake: All the same?  Visit the websites, and even if you’ve never heard of those schools, you’ll see pretty quickly.
  • Free time: Captain of the lacrosse team, 25 hours a week at Subway.  Equal?

You see the point.  When colleges say they think test scores are important (and they often do, right there in the strategic plan where they say they want to raise them), they favor wealthier students who can take them four times and pay for expensive prep courses.  When colleges say curricular rigor is important, they favor wealthy high schools with better facilities and dozens of AP courses, which the wealthy parents demand.  When an essay is a part of the evaluation, you favor kids who have been crafting them since sophomore year, often with the help of consultants or college-educated adults, over the kids who don’t even understand why or how much an essay matters. If a college considers teacher or counselor recommendations critical, guess who does those better: a) Prep Schools where a counselor might have a college-counseling caseload of 50, b) Better-resourced public schools, where counselors might have 400 or more students to work with on college between all the other things counselors do, or c) An under-resourced urban school where few attend college and there might (I stress “might” ) be one counselor for 1,500 students?  How about demonstrated interest?  I hope you get the point, and I hope journalists stop using the term “need-blind admissions.”  And I really have nothing against wealthy people or wealthier school districts.  My kids attend one.

Essentially, the very belief that we have “need-blind admissions” perpetuates the problem: We think of poverty as financial, rather than cultural: Poor kids meet different people, they have different opportunities, they watch different TV shows, and they may not hear about going to college around the dinner table.  It makes a difference, and it shows up: The wealthiest, weakest students go to college at the same rate as the smartest, poorest students.  But that noble phrase allows us to feel good while we’re asking poor students to dance backwards in high heels.

The zero-sum game:

I presume that Grinnell, a residential liberal-arts college, has a somewhat fixed capacity; they did when I was there.  In a zero-sum game, when  someone wins, someone loses.  If they want to enroll more wealthy students (and, by the way, why hasn’t anyone thought of that brilliant idea before?…I’m not even going to give that its own section) it means they’ll have fewer poor students.  And thus, it’s no longer enough to dance backwards and in high heels.  Now you have to go all Lil Buck on them.  Although I don’t think he wears high heels.

The money angle:

Grinnell has an endowment of, depending on the day, about $1.5 billion.  Assuming a very conservative draw down of 4% per year, that means $60,000,000 annually.  For ever.  That could run a lot of small liberal arts colleges (hell, it could run 10% of DePaul, with 16 times more students) without charging tuition.  But the great thing about Grinnell is that there is almost no student need that goes unmet; that’s expensive.  The bad thing about Grinnell is it’s obsessive about money, and it sometimes, I think, causes bad decisions.  (I fondly tell people that after my first recruiting trip for Grinnell in 1990, my expense reimbursement check was docked about a dollar because I over-tipped by that amount.)

If you don’t know Guidestar.org you really should; register and get an account today.  It compiles the tax forms 990 for almost all not-for profit institutions (all not-for-profits are required to make this document public).  Take a look at the 2011 Form 990 for Grinnell: Part XII shows $224 Million in unrealized gains on investments.  While it may be true that $1.5 billion in endowment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I think the “we’re poorer than people think” argument only goes so far.

What do you think?  If Grinnell can’t afford to guarantee it will stay need blind, is the rest of higher education totally screwed?

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2 replies

  1. You’ve made the point in earlier blog posts, but allow me to reiterate that the gap starts well before high school. Piano lessons, french horn lessons, soccer, tae kwon do. The list of opportunities for kids with money is endless. And these opportunities not only help them do better in school, both academically and socially, but I have to believe that it makes kids see the world as full of opportunity vs. limits.

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