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reed magazine logoAutumn 2007

Reclaiming our Admission Vision

By Konrad Alt ’81, alumni board president

Reed’s long-standing pride in the distinctively intense commitment of its students to intellectual rigor flows directly from the college’s initial vision endowment. In marked contrast to the established, elite colleges of the early 20th century, Reed’s founders embraced the democratic principle of merit-based admission—neither athletic ability nor family money nor race nor religion, but the applicant’s record and character alone, would drive the admission decision. The college’s first board of trustees declared that “no student [should] be denied because of the tuition fee.” Radical for its time, this approach had radical consequences. According to Reed historian Dorothy Johansen ’33, “[a]t least half of [Reed’s entering student body of 1911] came from families of low incomes that precluded expense of travel and living away from home.” By comparison, according to Burton R. Clark in The Distinctive College, only 32 percent of Harvard’s admissions were merit-based at this time.

As Reed nears the end of its first century, however, other liberal arts colleges increasingly embrace the democratic principles that Reed helped to pioneer at its founding. To remain a distinctive college in its second century, I believe Reed should rededicate itself to the goal of need-blind admission and consider abandoning the use of entrance examinations (SAT and ACT scores).

Reed departs from its historic commitment to merit-based admissions whenever it turns away a better-qualified applicant of limited means in favor of a less-qualified applicant of greater means. To be sure, these departures are the exceptions, not the rule: in a typical year, once the college’s projected financial aid budget is fully tapped out, a small number of applicants get wait-listed, rather than admitted, due to their need for financial aid. About ten percent of Reed’s admission decisions are affected in this way—a figure that may not sound like much, but that has significant financial implications.. To be truly need-blind in its admissions—i.e., to be able to expand its financial aid budget without limit to meet the full need of all admitted students—Reed would need an incremental endowment of $80 to $100 million. Only a small number of very wealthy institutions can afford such a policy today.

Even from atop the college’s current endowment of roughly $450 million, an incremental $100 million is a big hill to climb—especially given that the college must go on raising money for new faculty, computer systems, academic buildings, residence halls, etc. But a long-term commitment to the goal of need-blind admission could well inspire financial support from alumni (and others) that might not be forthcoming in response to other objectives. Even though need-blind admission may not be achievable in the near term, the college can still embrace it as a formal objective—a vision—to be pursued over the course of, say, a decade or more. Indeed, it is hard to think of another goal more firmly grounded in our heritage or more broadly supported by Reed administrators, students, faculty, and alumni alike.

Entrance examinations have been a point of ambivalence for Reed since its founding. Even while requiring exams and high school transcripts from applicants, the Reed College Catalog of 1911 explained that “[t]hose candidates, who, for reasons not discreditable to themselves, lack the conventional preparation of an accredited high school or academy, are given every opportunity to demonstrate that they are nevertheless prepared for college.” Founding president William Trufant Foster later explained that “[t]he most important part of the plan of admission was my personal interview with every candidate, followed in nearly every instance by personal interviews with his parents, ministers, teachers, former employers, and others who might know him intimately.” Nearly a century later, the 2007–08 Reed College Catalog requires applicants to submit test scores even while stating that “there are no cut-off points,” and avowing that “Reed recognizes that qualities of character . . . are important in the selection process.”

Let’s stop being ambivalent. Reed president Colin Diver has rightly criticized the movement among some small colleges to “SAT-optional” admission, saying it is motivated, at least in part, by an effort to game the U.S. News rankings: reported average SAT scores will inevitably rise at colleges that allow applicants with poor scores to decline to submit them. Reed should, of course, want no part in such a cynical effort. But we should go farther. SAT scores are the equivalent of U.S. News rankings for applicants. For a college that does not rank its students or graduates, and that has long criticized facile rankings by others, the right posture isn’t “SAT optional,” it’s “SAT irrelevant.”

Reed cannot expect to remain distinctive without a long-term commitment to distinction in its student body as well as its curriculum and faculty. Reclaiming our tradition of need-blind admission and extending our opposition to rankings into the admissions arena would help to preserve and strengthen our tradition of distinctiveness for decades to come.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2007