Not surprisingly, some schools with "need-aware" admissions policies end up enrolling very few low-income students. Only 7 percent of students at Washington University in St. Louis and Colby College in Waterville, Maine, for example, qualified for Pell grants in 2007-08. Officials at many of these schools say they need to collect more revenue from tuition because their endowments are comparatively small. But Washington University in St. Louis, for example, was reported to have the nation's 16th biggest college endowment last year, with over $4 billion in reserve as of June 30, 2009. Colby, with about $450 million in its endowment, can afford to provide scholarships to only 40 percent of its students, says Lucia Whittelsey, director of financial aid. But Colby seeks a diverse student body, so admissions officers "sometimes give an edge to students who have no extracurricular activities in school because they must work to help support their families," she says.
In comparison, more than one quarter of the students at "need-aware" Smith College, a women's college in Northhampton, Mass., receive Pell grants—a higher percentage than at "need-blind" Columbia or Amherst, both of which have larger endowments. Although Smith makes no bones about its practice of sometimes giving an admissions edge to students who can afford the schools' $50,000-plus sticker price, about 60 percent of its students receive financial aid. "Need-awareness" allows admissions officers to sometimes "put a thumb on the scale for disadvantaged students," says Smith's dean of enrollment, Audrey Smith.
In fact, colleges' announced policies about whether they discriminate against financial aid applicants appear to make very little difference in their enrollment of low-income students. On average, Pell recipients made up 14 percent of students at colleges that meet the full need of aid applicants and are "need-blind" in admissions. That's only slightly above the 12.6 percent rate of colleges that meet full need but say they reject some qualified aid applicants.
Some critics point out that colleges that insist they practice "need-blind" admissions aren't necessarily "wealth-blind." Many colleges are eager to recruit mediocre students from wealthy families who are likely to become big donors.
Peter Van Buskirk, former director of financial aid at Franklin and Marshall College of Lancaster, Pa., and author of "Winning the College Admission Game: Strategies for Parents and Students, " says the disconnect between some schools' promises not to count financial need against applicants and their actual enrollment of low-income students shows that "words are cheap. Nobody is auditing these colleges" to see what factors they really use to make admissions decisions.
Christopher Avery, a Harvard economist who has researched college admissions and aid decisions, says subtle biases can hurt low-income students' chances in admissions. Admissions officers may not count financial need against applicants, but they often prefer candidates with parents or relatives who attended the college, which ends up giving admissions edges to the wealthy. Or officers may prefer candidates who were able to participate in expensive extracurricular activities because they didn't have to work.
Sometimes the bias starts long before an application gets to the admissions office. Avery says the University of Virginia, for example, gets few applications from qualified low-income students. He says the school's reputation seems to be discouraging low-income students from even applying.