Journalism in the Public Interest

George Washington University Has for Years Claimed to be ‘Need-Blind.’ It’s Not.

After years of repeatedly claiming to practice “need-blind” admissions, administrators at George Washington University now acknowledge that the school has long given an edge to wealthier students. 

After years of repeatedly claiming to practice “need-blind” admissions, administrators at George Washington University now acknowledge that the school has long given an edge to wealthier students. (Ingfbruno/Wikimedia Commons)

George Washington University — which got in trouble last year for misreporting admissions data to bolster its college ranking — is making yet another confession.

The university has been misrepresenting its admissions and financial-aid policy for years, touting a “need-blind” admissions policy while in fact giving preference to wealthier students in the final stages of the admissions process, according to the student newspaper, the GW Hatchet, which first reported on the practice. Meanwhile, hundreds of academically comparable but needier students were put on the waitlist for admission because they lacked the financial resources.

Many colleges and universities like to tout “need-blind” admissions processes, or the practice of judging their applicants’ academic qualifications strictly on their merits and making decisions without factoring in applicants’ wealth. In recent years, some colleges that have traditionally been need-blind have weighed whether to become more need-aware.

Until a few days ago, the undergraduate admissions page for George Washington University stated, “Requests for financial aid do not affect admissions decisions.” That language was removed over the weekend. (Here’s the archived version.)

The updated page now explains that the admissions committee “evaluates” candidates initially without factoring in their financial need, but then considers applicants’ financial resources “at the point of finalizing admissions decisions.”

“I believe using the phrase ‘need aware’ better represents the totality of our practices than using the phrase ‘need blind,’” Laurie Koehler, senior associate provost for enrollment management, said in a statement to ProPublica.

“What we are trying to do is increase the transparency of the admissions process,” said Koehler.

Top GW administrators have repeatedly stated over the years that the university is need-blind. When the student newspaper in 2011 did a story about how some colleges are moving away from need-blind admissions, one administrator told the paper, “We’re still need-blind.”

It’s worth noting that the “need-blind” label can be as much about marketing as it is about giving all applicants a fair shot.

Many schools are “need-blind” but don’t actually give out much need-based aid. We recently detailed how universities, looking to boost their bottom lines, are increasingly using financial-aid dollars to attract wealthier students.

“It sounds better to people to say, ‘We're need-blind.’ People think that's a badge of courage,” said Matt Malatesta, vice president for admissions, financial aid, and enrollment at Union College, a small liberal arts college in New York that practices need-aware admissions.

Unless schools pony up the aid dollars to meet students’ financial needs, touting the need-blind label isn’t particularly meaningful for students, who may simply get the offer of admission along with an offer to take on unsustainable debt.

“There are pluses and minuses on both sides of the debate,” Malatesta said in an earlier interview. “I’m not a believer that one is better than another.”

But in contrast to GW, many of the schools that have weighed the pluses and minuses of need-blind versus need-aware have done so quite publicly.

Grinnell College, for instance, announced earlier this year that after considering whether to become need-aware, it would remain need-blind for the time being -- but would still look to wealthier students in the recruitment process and use merit aid to help attract them.

Wesleyan University last year took the other route, announcing it would give up the “need-blind” label and start to consider students’ financial need once its aid dollars were given out.

Both institutions are part of a handful of colleges across the country that promise to meet the full needs of all admitted students. George Washington University has not offered any such guarantee.

Earlier this year, George Washington University was featured in the Washington Post as trying to buck its “rich-kid reputation.” “I’m not going to deny we have a lot of students that come from wealthy families,” GW President Steven Knapp told the Post in April. “But we are increasingly trying to diversify, and I think we have been diversifying compared to where we were 10 years ago.”

About 13 percent of undergraduates at George Washington University receive the federal Pell grant for low-income students. That’s low, according to a recent report by the New America Foundation that also noted that the university charges its few low-income students, on average, a high net price even after grants and scholarships.

Tuition alone is more than $47,000 a year, and room and board costs another $11,000. The majority of students at the university pay less than the full sticker price, due to the university’s strategy of offering grants as discounts.

But even after grants are applied, low-income students at GW still pay a heavy price. Federal data for the 2011-2012 school year show that students at the university coming from families making $30,000 or less paid, on average, $21,000 to attend the university.

I feel like issues like this illustrate that we’ve never answered the question about what college is supposed to be for.

Sure, a hundred years ago, you went to college because it made you management or put you on the path to being a formal professional.  But even that doesn’t answer the question.

Are colleges supposed to maximize potential or provide stepping-stones to high-paying careers?  If it’s the latter, then GW and other schools are doing the right thing:  Take the people who already have great advantages and get them closer to their goals.  If it’s the former, though, we’ve got a huge problem.

Of course, the former angle is a more lucrative market…

Daryl Northrop

Oct. 22, 2013, 2:35 p.m.

I didn’t let the 100% likelihood of unsustainable debt stop me from attending! BTW - how much can I get on ebay for my graduation brick?

False advertising lawsuit filed in 3… 2… 1…

GWU is for rich kids who can’t get into Georgetown…

I was dirt poor - from a dirt poor family - when I went to GWU and they took good care of me, financial aid wise, and after GWU undergrad I went on to become a lawyer and I’m quite well-off now.  GWU was my reach school and my grades were pretty good, but top-of-class in high school.  GWU really gave me my break and allowed me to succeed, and I thank them. 

Maybe my experience is the outlier or maybe things have changed since the late 90s/early 00s, but GWU did right by me.  So please keep that in mind as they are criticized.

The Hatchet article says that this policy only affects up to 10% of applicants. I don’t believe that is mentioned in this article.

...I also am an alumnus of GW, and, like the poster above, the school took good care of me. 

I am very thankful that I went there.

The year after my daughter was accepted to Whitman College (where she is a senior now), the school moved to “needs sensitive admissions.”

This is the trend. It is absolutely unsustainable. The student debt bubble is ready to burst.


Oct. 23, 2013, 2:52 a.m.

Nothing is free now like it was long ago at the start of “Certification -Business”!
GW is doing O.K.
End of the game is personal gains; therefore one has to pay in advance for something before taking advantage of that something.

It would not be limited to GW.  As those who counsel high schoolers on admissions have known since 2008, when the economy melted down, preference to full-pay students has grown by a lot, irrespective of what colleges claim their policy is.  Full-pay (i. e., wealthy) students are more likely to gain admission for the simple reason that they are full-pay students.  How this affects public universities I don’t know, but their tuition keeps rising, so the same effect may well obtain.  If only we had citizens and elected officials who believed more strongly in social justice or equity, or just fair play.

Need blind is not possible unless you had a unlimited source of funds to operate a university. Year 1, could have an admitted class of which 80% need aid and year (2) have 90%, year (3) have 70%, then year (4) 25%. Would be impossible to predict and manage. Need blind is a feel good BS term universities use to hook potential applicants. The same BS which applies to the common application colleges use. I am convinced every college can see where else you have applied and who has marked your application for acceptance. This allows other schools to pass on you and narrows their applicant pool. It seems to be the only explanation for colleges to participate in the common application system.

Georg Washington

Oct. 25, 2013, 11:14 a.m.

This illustrates the coming revolution and blood in the streets that is coming. Of course, GW takes care of the wealthy. Their alumni live in Georgetown and work in DC and have no idea what goes on in America. They really think life is as they live it, because they have absolutely no other reference point.

George A. Winston III

Oct. 26, 2013, 3:37 p.m.

Tuition is an absurd concept.

Education is a human right, saddling our children with lifelong debt is nothing but a pernicious form of social control.

Greg Thrasher

Oct. 26, 2013, 6:56 p.m.

The myth of equality, diversity , inclusion in our educational systems in our nation only fuels the need for more Affirmative Action policies across every platform in our country .

This admission by GWU is sobering and confirms the depth and scope of privilege in our country a nation still evoking from its racism legacy .

Greg Thrasher
Plane Ideas
‘Alternative Think Tank’
Washington DC

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