Only a few private colleges practice truly need-blind admission, admitting all applicants regardless of their ability to pay. The number is difficult to pin down because of different accounting methods, variable admission policies, and semantics. Observers agree that only two or three dozen of the wealthiest private colleges in the country—such as Yale and Amherst—can afford to be need-blind. Many colleges admit students on a need-blind basis, but then deny some of them aid, as Reed used to do. More commonly, colleges “gap” aid, offering a financial aid package that meets something less than a student’s total demonstrated need.
Many of the schools that Reed considers its peers—Oberlin (where Marthers worked before coming to Reed), Carleton, Occidental—have been need-aware for years.
Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, caused a furor when it recently made a switch from need-blind to need-aware. With more than 70 percent of students receiving aid, Macalester officials said the college simply couldn’t afford to be need-blind. An alumnus wrote to the college magazine, complaining that “to abandon need-blind admission represents a radical departure from Macalester’s bedrock values.”
But college leaders were unswayed. “We were trying to find the right balance between quality and access,” says Macalester vice president David Wheaton. “Access is a really important value, but at some point you have to ask—‘access to what’?”
Among the small number of colleges that remain need-blind, many have large enough endowments to handle the ever-increasing costs of financial aid. And many, including the Ivy League schools and some smaller colleges, also recruit significant numbers of athletes and children of alumni who tend to be affluent and can pay their own way.
A closer comparison to Reed is Haverford College in Pennsylvania. With roughly the same number of students and a similar-sized endowment, Haverford has remained need-blind. Why? Mainly because it attracts wealthier students: 43 percent are on aid, according to Admission Dean Jess Lord, compared to more than 50 percent at Reed. Also, Haverford’s average aid package is about $2,000 lower than Reed’s. So, it has fewer students on aid, and they need less aid to make it through.
In fact, based on a commonly used indicator—the number of students eligible for federal need-based Pell grants—Reed actually enrolls more lower-income students than many of its peers. That may result in part from Reed’s refusal to follow a recent trend toward so-called “merit aid,” the awarding of scholarships to students based on academics, athletics, or other special characteristics, without taking need into account. The University of Chicago and Grinnell, among others, offer merit awards to entice desired students.
Reed does offer loan-free financial aid packages to about 20 exceptional candidates each year who qualify for aid and are designated Presidential Scholars. But there is no aid of any kind offered to even the most academically attractive applicants who are able to pay their own way, because that would benefit those who don’t need financial help at the expense of those who do.
“I have no question that we lose a handful of students to other places because they’re getting merit aid,” Steinberger says. “This is going to sound obnoxious, but a lot of us have enough confidence in Reed as a distinctive, special place that if a student wants to go to Institution X because they’re getting $4,000 a year, that’s okay.”