Financial Aid’s History: How Whitman Continues to Privilege Wealthy Applicants

Sarah Cornett

Under its current financial aid policies, Whitman can reject applicants based on their family’s lack of wealth— but this is a relatively recent shift. The college became “need-sensitive” for the first time in 2009, and from 1986 to 1991, it also met 100 percent of students’ financial need.

During this period, the number of students with Pell Grants increased significantly, to 18.5 percent (for comparison, 10 percent of last year’s freshman class received Pell Grants).  However, according to a 2004 report by Director of Institutional Research Neal Christopherson on financial aid at the college, “the academic profile of the entering class declined, the financial needs of students increased faster than costs and overall enrollments were declining” during this five-year period.

Short on cash, the college began granting merit-based scholarships with the goal of increasing enrollment and stabilizing its financial footing. The goal was to offer merit awards in the hopes of attracting students, especially wealthy ones that could pay an amount closer to the sticker price (merit scholarships only benefit students who have no financial need, as those with need who receive merit scholarships have the same amount subtracted from their need-based aid).

“It was to ensure that we got enough students to pay our bills,” said Director of Institutional Research Neal Christopherson, of the decision to grant merit-awards. “That was the problem. We didn’t have enough money to run the college because we weren’t getting enough freshman.”

Granting merit awards resulted in higher revenues for the college and coincided with an increase in the academic profile of admitted students and Whitman’s rise in college rankings. But, a number of students with Pell Grants decreased from 18-19 percent in the mid-90s to about 10 percent in the mid-2000s, meaning that fewer students from low-income families attended.

This decline in Pell Grants was the impetus for Christopherson to author a report in 2004, entitled “Need and non-Need based Financial Aid at Whitman College.”

“Whitman’s policy of ‘buying profile’ has been successful, but with certain unintended results,” he wrote in the report’s conclusion. “If socio-economic diversity is important to the college, a review of current policy is important.”

Since the start of the 2000’s, Whitman has kept its merit spending constant, while significantly increasing the amount spent on need-based aid. Still, at about $4 million a year, Whitman gives more in merit than all but one of its peer colleges.

Whitman also retained its need-blind admissions policy. However, motivated by the 2008 financial crisis and a resulting 20 percent dip in the endowment, the admissions office went need-sensitive in 2009. This significant shift meant that the college could factor in an applicant’s financial need in choosing to admit them.

According to Cabasco, the decision resulted from a rise in admitted students’ levels of demonstrated financial need.

“The number of students [with demonstrated financial need] didn’t change that much. It was the level of need of those students who came to Whitman that changed after the recession.”

If the admissions office had more to give in aid today, Cabasco said it would prioritize meeting 100 percent of need (it has met between 92 and 96 percent of demonstrated need in the past 10 years) before moving back to being ‘need-blind.’

“Our commitment is always to the students we have on campus- let’s take care of those folks first before we expand.”