Need Blind Admissions and Mr. Bloomberg

Guest Correspondence

BY DONAL O'SHEA SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY DEC 8, 2018

You might remember the news a few weeks ago that Michael Bloomberg, financial media mogul and former mayor of New York City, gave $1.8 billion dollars to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University.

We see big numbers bounced around so much now that we barely notice them anymore, but I can assure you 1,800,000,000 is a very big number. If you earn $50,000 a year, it would have taken you 36,000 years to earn that that amount of money (meaning that you would have had had to start 25,000 years before the end of the last ice age, and 18,000 years before there were any humans in North America). According to Forbes magazine, had he thrown in an additional 5 percent, Bloomberg could have cornered the marked on Florida baseball by purchasing both the Tampa Bay Rays and the Miami Marlins.

As much fun as that would have been, it’s clear that he has done something more worthwhile.

As most parents know, the cost of a college education is rising, and families are paying for it by borrowing money. In 2015, college students graduated with $34,000 in debt—up from $20,000 just a decade earlier, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That number has grown since then, and is now estimated at more than $37,000.

And as you’d imagine, students and their families struggle to pay off that kind of debt. The average monthly student loan payment rose from $227 in 2005 to $393 by 2016. In turn, that debt burden means people are less able to buy homes, the Washington Fed has found. And many more students are defaulting on those loans, the National Center for Education Statistics reported last month.

In a New York Times column, Bloomberg said his gift is intended to change all that, to “make admissions at Hopkins forever need-blind.” That’s a common term in admissions, which means the college will not consider the student’s ability to pay the cost of tuition when it decides whom to admit—it will be blind to their need, or lack thereof, and (this is critical) it will provide enough financial aid to meet the demonstrated need of every student who attends. This means those whose families have no financial resources pay nothing and those who are wealthy pay the full tuition and board.

It’s a wonderful idea, but one that is exceedingly difficult for all but the wealthiest colleges and universities. Those that have need-blind admissions policies and that meet full financial need include Amherst College, Caltech, Harvard University, MIT, Pomona, Princeton, Stanford, Swarthmore and the University of Chicago, all of which have endowments in the billions of dollars. (There’s that big number again.) Some that have tried it—including two of our peers in the world of small liberal arts colleges, Haverford and Wesleyan—have reversed course. That’s because most colleges rely on students who can afford to pay more to cover the costs of able students who cannot afford the full tuition. That said, the tuition paid at the nation’s best nonprofit institutions, even by those who receive no financial aid, is less than the actual cost to the institution.

New College is part of Florida’s state university system, and we shouldn’t forget the importance of those state systems. While some states had already created them, the Morrill Act of 1862 created land grant colleges, for the purpose of teaching agriculture and mechanical skills needed by the nation. That democratized education, making it something for the sons and daughters of farmers and tradesmen, and not just the moneyed elite. Over time, those colleges expanded their offerings and became the full-fledged institutions they are today. Together with highly educated immigrants and graduates of America’s elite institutions, the graduates of state institutions built today’s America.

Being part of the state system plays a critical role in allowing New College to charge one of the lowest tuitions in the country—$6,913 a year in 2018-19 for a full-time in-state student. Even at that price, we offer one of the country’s finest educations, with about 80 percent of our students going on to advanced degrees, becoming researchers, educators and leaders.

However, tuition is not the only cost of a college education. At New College, which is residential, room and board costs $9,264 per year, which is more than our tuition. Books and supplies add another $1,500. Adding up those costs comes to about $17,500 a year, which is more than some students and families can afford. About two-thirds of our graduating students who entered as first year students graduate with no debt at all, while the other third graduate with an average of $16,000 in debt. These numbers are why New College ranks in the top 10 schools nationwide for affordability.

One might ask, however, how much would it take for New College to be need blind and meet the full financial need of every student who attends? Put differently, how much would it cost to enable every New College student to graduate with no debt? The answer: about $1.6 million a year. Assuming a annual payout of 4 percent, an endowment gift of $40 million to the New College Foundation would ensure that the college could offer this in perpetuity. Mr. Bloomberg, please feel free to give us a call.

Donal O'Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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