Op-Ed: Whitman Admissions has no excuses

Grant Simmons, Alumni '19

As the country operates like an oil rig that has exploded and is now slowly sinking into the ocean, many institutions in the US are righteously facing an existential crisis. This includes the world of “elite” higher education as the negative role that private schools play in the realm of equality is, deservedly, coming under scrutiny. Obviously, Whitman is by no means excluded from those discussions. BSU has recently pointed out the abysmal rate of racial diversity present at Whitman and made demands that the school should listen to; Ask any pool of students what the biggest issue with Whitman is and I guarantee you diversity will come up as the most common answer.

I think it’s worth noting that the issue isn’t JUST that Whitman is a predominantly white school – it’s a predominantly white school with a wealthy student body that, at times, feels to be almost exclusively from the Seattle, Portland, and Bay Area. A weird “Grad-school prep-school” for west coast rich kids. Race is, by far, the most important component in the issue of Whitman’s diversity – but it certainly isn’t the only component. I remember when I applied that Whitman’s supplemental essay prompt went something along the lines of “Choose a few of these words that encapsulate the Whitman experience and write about how you identify with them.” Some of these words includes “rock climbing”, “pacific northwest”, and “farm to table.” Admissions may as well have just sent kids a Patagonia magazine and asked them to circle models in it that they identify with. Since then, that prompt has gone away, but that seems to be one of the few things that Admissions has done in order to create an applicant pool representative of all races, backgrounds, and socio-economic statuses.

The point I think that’s really worth making is that forming a school’s student body starts with who applies. And, in this department, Whitman Admissions has never done enough. When it comes to geographic representation, 60% of Whitman’s most recent class comes from Washington, Oregon, or California. That’s quite a lot, especially for a school that’s supposedly “nationally recognized”. Whitman also receives less applications than almost any of its peers, no matter which way you want to define “peers”. While many colleges have taken it upon themselves to aggressively rethink admissions as whole, Whitman Admissions has seemed content to operate in an idle position with only small changes occasionally being applied to its process and god forbid any campaigning to get a larger and more varied applicant pool. Take into consideration that many leading schools have adopted a need-blind admission policy meaning a student’s financial status has no bearing on whether they’re admitted or not; Whitman does not have this policy (ultra cool fun fact: it used to). Many liberal arts schools have made it free to apply for admission, making themselves more open to disadvantaged students and increasing the general applicant pool; Whitman does not have this policy either.

Someone who overly prides themselves on being a rational person is reading all this, while smiling like the Grinch or something, saying out loud to their computer “but don’t all those things cost a lot of money?” How sensible of them. It is true. Any and all initiatives to recruit more students to apply do, in fact, cost a good amount of money. However, for the 2020 school year, Whitman ranked 50th in the country for endowment money per student. That statistic isn’t just for liberal arts colleges: it’s for literally all colleges in the country. Some schools that Whitman outranks in this category include Cornell, Tufts, Georgetown, NYU, Wesleyan, Colgate, Harvey Mudd, Kenyon, Oberlin, and Bates. Whitman literally has more money per student than every one of those schools. That’s absolutely unhinged. Especially when you consider that almost all of those schools are more diverse than Whitman in at least one of the ways mentioned earlier (race, geography, socio-economic status) if not all three. A school’s yearly budget is only a small percentage of their endowment. But with that defense given, endowment is still a good approximate of how much money a school has on hand to spend. It’s also a marker of how good a school is at fundraising in general. If Whitman didn’t have money in the near future to change its admissions process (which feels unlikely), it seems very reasonable that it could acquire it if it really wanted.

To give credit, Whitman has made some progress on having a more diverse student body. The school has recently committed to spending significantly more on financial aid and this incoming years class has the highest percentage of BIPOC students in all of the school’s history. Also, Whitman has lost millions of dollars this year due to COVID meaning any new spending initiatives would likely have to wait a bit. But in a wide-screen, zoomed-out vision of the future, these are small points. To truly break out of its PNW-wealthy-white-person mold and have a student body that is racially, geographically, and socio-economically diverse, Whitman will have to get a lot more proactive and aggressive with its admissions process. Campaigning hard for a larger applicant pool, pulled from areas of the country that are outside of Whitman’s comfort zone, would be a good start to combatting those three lacking areas of diversity.

As the world changes rapidly, Whitman Admissions fails to keep up its peers. With every year that goes by on the flaming oil rig, Whitman’s diversity issue becomes a bigger detriment to the school and a bigger threat to the idea that Whitman is truly a socially sustainable institution. What’s especially frustrating is that Whitman’s resources make the school contain the potential to not just get vanquish its largest issue, but actually lead in this area and show what a contemporary and equitable private college could look like. But the efforts for that would look far different than Admissions current lack of initiative. As it stands at the moment, Admissions will have to make leaps and bounds, not incremental small steps, to even meet the justified expectations of the modern world.