Op-Ed: Contributions to College Accessibility

Sean Hays, Whitman College Senior

Here’s a fun little tidbit: I may have gotten into Whitman when I really shouldn’t have. Mad yet?

Hold off on the pitchforks for just a second, and let me explain. One part of why this may have happened is because of Whitman’s need-sensitive admissions policy. After Whitman offers admissions to all of the unequivocally qualified candidates, Whitman must decide on its last remaining spots. When doing this, Whitman takes into account other factors, including that student’s ability to pay. But there’s more to the story, so hear me out. This piece is about Whitman’s problems and shortcomings, but it’s also about what we can do to make Whitman more accessible.

College accessibility has been a hot-button topic for not only Whitman but the country as a whole. With growing wealth inequality and an increasing percentage of American jobs that require a secondary degree, who goes to college and how much it costs matters. If we don’t ensure everyone has access to education – for our purposes, a college education – wealth inequality will continue to calcify and economic mobility will stagnate further.

Any discussion of economic mobility probably brings up the American Dream – the notion that if you work hard you can climb the socioeconomic ladder. But let’s talk numbers for a second. Pew Research says that on one hand, absolute economic mobility is indeed rising – that is, people are more likely to be better off than their parents. However, relative economic mobility – defined as the ability to move between the socioeconomic class you were born into – has languished.

But what does college have to do with this? Everything, frankly. The average lifetime earnings of high school graduate are $1.2 million yet a holder of a bachelor’s degree earns $2.1 million on average. Therefore, access to college is intrinsically linked to socioeconomic mobility, and by extension the health of our civic society.

Where does Whitman stand in all of this? For those of you sharpening your pitchforks as we speak, let’s satiate your desire to rake me over the coals on one of Whitman’s favorite buzzwords: privilege. If I indeed got into Whitman because of my ability to pay – or rather, my family’s – I’m a privileged little WASP, right? I’ll leave that up to you, honestly. But besides me, what other injustices are there regarding Whitman’s accessibility?

If you weren’t already mad enough at need-sensitive admissions, your blood will probably boil about merit aid, or as I like to call it, affirmative action for rich people. As a percentage of all financial aid Whitman gives out, merit aid – which is typically given to high performing (and usually full-tuition paying) students – has dropped from approximately 40 to 20 percent over the last decade. The problem is that when Whitman tried to drop it even lower, not enough full-paying students came and Whitman had a budget shortfall. But come on, there’s got to be another way, right?

What about just boycotting merit aid? The Ivy League universities tried to do it in the 1980s, after all. Unfortunately, as Dr. Sandy Baum explained in an article in the Winter 2015 edition of the Whitman Magazine, this isn’t possible. Unfortunately, the Ivies’ collusion to eliminate merit aid was deemed illegal. Whitman’s current strategy, according to Dean of Admission Tony Cabasco, is a long term play based on student experience and quality of education which will hopefully put Whitman in a position to be able to forego merit aid by virtue of its prestige and quality.

It’s easy for me as a rich white kid to endorse this long-term plan: “Just wait it out, poor people! God, you’re so impatient (and ungrateful).” Hopefully you read the sarcasm there, but since I’ve always thought Whitties often lacked a sense of humor, those pitchforks might be getting pretty close by now.

Okay, maybe another solution then? One redistributive measure to combat socioeconomic inequality is the discount rate, which essentially is how much, as a total average, Whitman discounts their tuition to the entire student body. These discount rates are an important tool to spread the wealth which allows lower-income students to attend the college by taking the money from full-paying students and putting it towards the tuition of low-income students, which only seems fair. Whitman’s discount rate is currently around 35 percent, although somewhat recently, it’s been as high as 40 percent, but this was deemed financially untenable.

According to Dean Cabasco, Whitman has tentative plans to increase the discount rate to 37 percent for the next year’s incoming class, which is a step in the right direction. In a perfect world, I’d love to see the discount rate higher. But what can we do to make this happen? If you really say you want diversity, what steps are you willing to take? What are you willing to give up?

Just to ruffle some feathers: Did we really need a 1.5-million-dollar climbing wall? Or maybe we could cull some of the underperforming sports teams? (I can think of a few.) What about (I enjoy lobbing this one) free range and organically sourced foods? Even divestment has financial implications for accessibility. But most of these are one-off costs (to use scary business language) and are drops in the bucket of Whitman’s overall budget.

Those quality of life amenities are chump change relative to our biggest expense: personnel. Roughly 60 to 70 percent of our budget goes to salaries and benefit packages. So would you be willing to sit in a discussion group of 25 instead of 12? (Or, if you really want a challenge, try convincing your professor to donate their retirement plan to need-based aid – maybe start with some of our Marxist-leaning humanities professors and work your way to the Econ and Bio professors?) In the meantime, we could probably figure out a way to cut some of those expensive tenure and tenure-track positions too.

If you thought you were off the hook, you were wrong. What can you do? What about a program you could opt into where you take on a few thousand dollars of debt and the money is given to need-based aid? Or you could donate your merit aid to need-based aid? With all our Bernie supporters, you’d think someone would’ve already suggested this. Or do our calls for socialism stop at the boundaries of our wallets? If so, I guess it’s Whitties who are actually the one percent.

So yes, I’m sure as hell privileged, but you should keep asking yourself: At a school that costs this much, what’s your privilege? More importantly, what are you actually willing to do about it?