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Hamilton College acceptance rate
Students on the Hamilton College campus. Credit: Bob Handelman

CLINTON, N.Y. — There’s a stone patio in front of the admissions building at Hamilton College, a gift from members of the Class of 2014 to commemorate — of all things — an obscure acceptance policy that benefited many of them.

Under the change, the college began in 2010 to consider applicants without regard to how much money their family made. And the students decided that memorializing this in stone meant Hamilton could never go back on this commitment.

It may seem surprising — even in the secretive world of college admissions — that applicants to most schools are, in fact, judged not only by their academic ability and promise, but also on their financial situations. After all, said Nick Gustaitis, a Hamilton senior, if you work hard enough, and are smart enough, you’re supposed to be able to accomplish anything.

“This is something I think most people have no idea about — that your income affects whether or not your kid gets into college,” said Gustaitis, who comes from what he describes as a blue-collar family without a lot of means.

Hamilton admissions director Monica Inzer said she was surprised by this, too, when she arrived at the campus of stately stone buildings on a hill overlooking the Oriskany and Mohawk Valleys of Central New York, and was put to work considering applicants.

“They opened up a folder and said, ‘Here’s Johnny, and here’s his SAT scores and here’s his GPA and here’s his [financial] need,” she recalled.

“The hardest part of my job was deciding who not to take,” Inzer said. “I didn’t like that some of those were because of money.”

Related: Colleges that pledged to help poor families have been doing the opposite, new figures show

But accepting lower-income students who couldn’t afford Hamilton’s tuition, fees, room, and board—this year, $62,700—only meant they wouldn’t come, hurting its all-important yield rate, or the measure of the proportion of accepted students who enroll.

Meanwhile, most institutions compete for higher-income students by giving some financial aid to them. They call this merit aid, and the proportion of students who receive it has nearly doubled to 44 percent at private, nonprofit colleges and universities since 1995, the U.S. Department of Education reports.

Hamilton dropped merit aid, as much because it couldn’t afford to spend as much as wealthier rivals in the battle for students as for philosophical reasons.

The merit aid arms race also meant that, like other colleges and universities, it was short-changing lower-income prospects. In 3 to 5 percent of cases, students were either turned down because they couldn’t afford to pay for Hamilton, or accepted because they could, said Inzer.

Related: States moving financial aid away from poor to wealthy, middle class

Hamilton College acceptance rate
Looking out Burke Library the day after a snow storm of the campus at Hamilton College, on Thursday, February 6, 2014 in Clinton, NY. Credit: Nancy L. Ford

“We didn’t have enough money to admit the kids we wanted to admit and we were giving money to kids who didn’t need it,” she said.

Then, when the economic downturn put the squeeze on budgets in 2008, the college’s board of trustees convened to consider how it could distinguish itself in a crowded field of similar small, selective northeastern liberal-arts institutions. During that six-hour meeting, Inzer suggested dropping altogether the policy of reviewing applicants’ financial circumstances.

Among the reasons leaders of the college cite for that decision is its origins as a seminary begun by Presbyterian missionaries. But this shift, too, was as strategic as it was philosophical.

That’s because the mix of high school graduates headed for the likes of Hamilton and other American colleges and universities is changing fast. The U.S. Department of Education projects that the number of college students who are Hispanic will jump by 42 percent and the number who are black by 25 percent through 2021, while the number who are white will inch up only 4 percent. And many of these new students will come from lower-income parents who did not themselves go to college.

“Most companies don’t know who their customers will be in five years, but I do, because they’re in the seventh grade,” said Inzer, herself the first in her family to earn a degree.

To avoid seeing a decline in its yield — or, for that matter, over time, in its enrollment — Hamilton would have to find enough financial aid so that, once it admitted lower-income students, it could help them afford to go there. At that meeting at which board members agreed to drop financial considerations from admission decisions, six of the trustees pledged $500,000 each toward this goal, and the college has since raised $40 million for it and begun another fundraising campaign to support it.

Related: Wealthier students more likely than poor to get private scholarships

“Meeting full financial need” is a higher-education term that doesn’t necessarily mean what many people think it does. While some students get full rides, others are required to take out loans, too.

Though several have abandoned it, 41 colleges and universities nationwide say they are holding on to need-blind admission.

Still, since Hamilton went need-blind, the proportion of freshmen who are nonwhite is up from 13 percent to about 25 percent, the college says. The proportion who are low income, based whether they are eligible for federal Pell grants, has eked up more slowly, from 10 percent to 14 percent through 2013, government data show, though Inzer said it has since increased to 18 percent. (This hasn’t stopped the kinds of protests that have occurred on other campuses; at Hamilton, an anonymous group called the Movement has called for the admission of more nonwhite applicants and more racial diversity among faculty and made other demands.)

The high cost of ignoring applicants’ need, and meeting the financial need of students they accept, is why some other colleges and universities have retreated from need-blind admission, not adopted it, as Hamilton did. In all, 41 colleges and universities nationwide say they are holding on to need-blind admission. Tufts and Wesleyan both abandoned it after 2008, and Case Western is considering dropping it.

When Moody’s downgraded its bond rating for Haverford College in October, one of the reasons it cited was the high cost of its need-blind admissions policy. Haverford declined to respond to questions about this, or its future plans.

Some parents, alumni, and faculty also don’t like the idea, said Joan Hinde Stewart, president of Hamilton and the daughter of a Brooklyn pipefitter who also was the first in her family to go to college. Parents of high-achieving students have come to expect merit aid, for instance, she said, and know that other schools will give it to them.

Related: The financial aid policy that shuts out millions of students

Nor does everyone who believes in access for low-income students think need-blind admission is the answer to this. Even if admissions officers don’t know a student’s family income, there are plenty of other clues in applications that can tell them whether someone can contribute to the bottom line, or will need a big outlay of financial aid: where they live, for instance, the caliber of the high school they attend, what kinds of courses they took, and who wrote their letters of recommendation.

“All of those things conspire against a kid who doesn’t have a college counselor who knows him, who doesn’t know you have to proof the essay seven times, doesn’t know he has to get on the track for AP courses,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president of enrollment management at DePaul University. “Every single factor in that file screams privilege or wealth or poverty or lack of opportunity.”

Thinking need-blind admission actually is blind to need “is self-delusional,” he said.

Boeckenstedt remembers hearing an admissions director from a highly selective college say at a conference that her institution spent much of its time looking for low-income students, which she defined as those whose families earned less than $60,000 — and that there weren’t enough truly poor students capable of meeting the school’s academic requirements.
“I guess that depends on what you see every day,” he said wryly. “The fact that you can say that and assume that everybody’s going to agree with you implies that people at your university probably say it all the time and probably believe it.”

Said Boeckenstedt: “You know and you learn what you see every day. When a young admissions officer gets hired at one of these places, he or she gets told, these are the 50 high schools you’re going to visit this fall, and there’s always been the perpetuation of, these are the schools that send us the most applicants, and you don’t learn anything different.”

What top colleges and universities really have to do is reach out to students who don’t apply to them in the first place, said Adam Falk, the president of Williams College, almost 20 percent of whose students are low income, and which flies high-achieving low-income prospective applicants to its campus and teams up with a nonprofit called QuestBridge to find them.

Related: Can $25 million get 500 poor kids through college? One billionaire is trying

The idea of need-blind admission “fits nicely on a bumper sticker,” Falk said. But “simply taking your admission pool and turning off your information about the financial need of students isn’t good enough. You have to go out there and find students. That means going into communities with high financial need and actively recruiting there.”

It also means supporting students from those places when they show up, Falk said.

Hamilton found it needed to set up a fund for financial emergencies for students so poor they couldn’t afford to pay for such things as graduate-school admission tests or visits to a dentist. It has another to subsidize low-income students who take unpaid summer internships, as their higher-income classmates can more easily do, instead of working in the summers.

“Hamilton doesn’t pretend that we’ve eliminated socioeconomic inequality,” said Brian Sobotko, another senior there, who said he was able to enroll only because he got enough financial aid. “One little college at the top of a hill in upstate New York won’t change the world. But the fact that we have this is a step forward.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in collaboration with the Huffington Post. Read more about higher education.

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