Access and Excellence

Need-blind admission, student quality, and diversity at Emory College

John Latting

Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Enrollment and Dean of Admission

In order to design the system in which the admission and financial aid processes work together at Emory College—or at any college, for that matter—the university has had to make some important decisions. In the year that I’ve been at Emory, working within the Office of the Provost and its Enrollment Services division, and working with the leadership of Emory College, the team in the Office of Admission, and Dean Bentley and his team in the Office of Financial Aid, I have found the university to be thoughtful and principled in constructing the way the financial aid program supports enrollment goals for Emory College. We focus on admitting the best students who apply, and we fund them. We focus on the need of families, while being more aggressive with funding the small number of students who stand out for their potential and have many choices for where they’ll enroll. We are humane when working with students from families with the least means. We also expect families to treat an Emory education as an investment and to be willing to make some sacrifice to pay for it.

Financial aid is offered in this way because an Emory education is a special opportunity for a young person, and the university has the obligation to ensure that promising students from all backgrounds have the chance to benefit from this experience. Given that the cost of attendance at most of the nation’s leading private universities, including Emory, now exceeds median household income in the United States, by definition most parents are not able to pay what it costs to study here out of current income (Emory’s billed costs for fiscal 2012 were $52,792, $30 more than the median U.S. household income in 2011). If the enrolling class is to have some socioeconomic diversity, it is important to offer assistance to some students in meeting Emory’s costs. Individual judgments about this assistance, made by Dean Bentley and his colleagues, are sensitive to the resources of families: those who have the least ability to pay receive the largest amount of financial aid, which typically consists of several kinds of assistance (see below).

Emory College could enroll a 1,350-student class using less financial aid, but there would be an immediate cost to doing so—to student quality and diversity.

For most of the best-prepared students, of course, regardless of family wealth, the question is not whether they will go to college, but where. Emory competes in a market for talented students—all our competitors assist some students in meeting costs—so financial aid is not solely related to access and diversity, but also to the quality of the student population. Without some form of financial aid to make Emory accessible to a broad spectrum of families, we would enroll a far weaker and less diverse student population than we do. In this sense, financial aid is an investment in the quality of our student population.

It’s for all these reasons—access, excellence, and the wide distribution of wealth in this country and around the world—that Emory structures its admission process and offers financial aid the way it does. Let me be more specific about how admission and financial aid work together at Emory to enroll the best possible freshman class each year.

What are the principles that have guided the design of our admission and aid programs?

 The current Emory College process is built on two significant principles: that admission decisions for U.S. citizens and Permanent Residents are made in a “need-blind” fashion, and that Emory will meet the full calculated need of admitted students who apply for financial aid. Emory is unusual in making these two commitments in the national context—fewer than fifty colleges and universities do, but they happen to include chief competitors: all eight Ivy League institutions, the University of Chicago, Duke, Georgetown, MIT, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Rice, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and the University of Virginia, for example. What these policies mean from an admission standpoint is that readers of applications for Emory College freshman admission do not have access to, and do not consider, the wealth of the family of an applicant when making admission decisions. Emory focuses in its selection process on identifying students who are best positioned to benefit from an Emory education and to contribute in some way to the diversity and vibrancy of the university community, period. These policies often resonate with the students, parents, and school staff we meet, who see the full price of private colleges like Emory and wonder if such schools are out of reach for them. The admitted class is then handed to colleagues in the Office of Financial Aid, where a need analysis is conducted, and a financial aid award that meets the demonstrated need of the student is generated (provided, of course, that student and his or her parents have supplied Emory with required financial forms and documents). Managing financial aid costs in this policy environment can be a challenge, but Emory is careful to model aid costs, and to prepare for and budget around classes expected to enroll each year. Tuition revenue, excluding financial aid, has been increasing for Emory College, allowing it to continue to make investments in excellence in research, teaching, and student life.

How are Emory’s financial aid resources allocated?

At present Emory College allocates the vast majority of its aid resources on the basis of financial need of our families, although the college does maintain a merit-based program (less than 10 percent of all grants and scholarships are awarded without respect to financial need through a variety of initiatives, such as the Emory Scholars program). For need-based programs, ability to pay is determined through a standard need analysis that takes into account all of a family’s financial assets. Financial need is met through a combination of federal, state, and Emory resources, and need-based aid is awarded to supplement, but not replace, a family’s ability to pay for college. Our goal is to make enrollment at Emory a possibility for all admitted students, regardless of family wealth.

Starting with fall 2009 enrollment and as part of Emory’s 2005–2015 Strategic Plan, the university launched the Emory Advantage program for families with total incomes below $100,000. Families in this income range have reduced loan expectations and therefore receive more aid in the form of grants. Students with family incomes below $50,000, in fact, are not expected to borrow at all in the financial aid Emory offers them. Note that relative to the total aid program here the size of Emory Advantage is small, accounting for about 4 percent of Emory’s aid expenditure. But Emory Advantage does reiterate the university’s commitment to the principle that family wealth should not be a barrier to admission or enrollment, and the university’s track record of success in enrolling students from lower-income families demonstrates that we are following through on that commitment.

Where does financial aid fit among priorities?

How should Emory College balance its commitment to student quality and diversity via financial aid with its commitment to invest in excellence in research and teaching? Through its policies, Emory can control the size of its aid budget. There is significant demand for an Emory education, and Emory College could enroll a 1,350-student class using less financial aid. But there would be an immediate cost to doing so—to student quality and diversity: a strong financial aid program has the effect of increasing the size, diversity, and quality of the applicant pool, of the admitted class of students considering Emory, and, in turn, of our new freshman class arriving each fall.

Emory College’s continued careful management of financial aid resources is an important matter, given the way student aid provides crucial support to fundamental admission, enrollment, and institutional goals, such as the quality and diversity of our students; to public perceptions of our values and of the nature of our university community; and even to enthusiasm of Emory alumni and friends for the university. While we stand today on a firm policy foundation, we’ve seen some of the questions Emory, and indeed all colleges and universities, will wrestle with in the years ahead.