Economic diversity lacking at Lafayette

By Brett Billings

Since 2008, the ability of a student to pay the full cost of tuition, when applying to Lafayette, has become increasingly more important. In that same timeframe, Lafayette has pledged more to its students’ families with incomes under $100,000.

According to the 2011 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Directors, 31 percent of officials at private baccalaureate institutions say the economic downturn has forced them to pay more attention to students’ ability to pay.

According to President Daniel H. Weiss’ 2007 Strategic Plan Lafayette hoped to “increase its financial resources to support need-blind/full-need admissions and reduce the extent of loans in the financial-aid packages provided to our students.”

While Lafayette has been able to reduce its students’ loans, it has yet to fully support need-blind admissions. Because of the 2008 recession, “we haven’t been able to advance that goal,” Weiss said.

“We are still need-blind for the vast majority of our admissions,” Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Greg MacDonald said. “Students’ ability to pay is very far down on our list of priorities in the vast majority of our admissions decisions.”

Around, or before, the time most Lafayette students were born, MacDonald began working in admissions for his alma mater, Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

In the 22 years since, he has seen a fundamental shift in how the role of admissions is handled. “As cabinet and board members have become more involved in admissions work,” MacDonald said, “our work has been much more market-centered.”

In an article published by Inside Higher Ed, between the 1995-1996 and 2007-2008 academic years, need-based financial aid remained the same, while merit-based aid practically doubled. Many institutions, reads the article, “have embraced merit-based financial aid out of the belief that offering partial scholarships will help them attract paying students away from higher-profile peers.”

Approximately 20 percent of admitted students are offered a merit-based Marquis Scholarship, for which no special application is necessary. In December 2009, the available amount for incoming students was increased from $16,000 to $20,000.

That increase was “because the scholarship was established to influence a high school senior’s decision to enroll at Lafayette rather than at another school,” Vice President for Communications Robert Massa told The Lafayette in 2009.

“Back before 2008,” Massa said in an interview this past September, “I would say a college like Lafayette, with the resources that we have, could afford to be need-blind. We could afford to aid who we admitted. We could afford to not take into account their financial need on admission. I think today it’s different. I think it’s just the reality.”

According to The Project on Student Debt’s website, during the 2008-2009 academic year, seven percent of Lafayette students received Federal Pell Grants, a method of determining economic diversity. Comparable to Lafayette that year, eight and nine percent of students at Colgate and Bucknell, respectively, received Pell Grants.

In contrast, at a large institution like the University of California at Los Angeles, 30.7 percent of students received Pell Grants.

Similar to Pell Grants, a school’s endowment is another method in determining economic diversity. In 2008, Lafayette boasted an endowment of $682,673. With the economic recession that same year, Lafayette saw a more than 20 percent decrease as the endowment dropped to $535,585.

Diversity has become an increasingly important factor to admissions during the past couple decades.

The thing about socioeconomic class, according to Vice President for Student Life and Senior Diversity Officer Celestino Limas, is that it can bridge a lot of the gaps between other indicators of diversity such as geographic location, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity.

In fall 2010, the Campus Climate Study, which took about a year-and-a-half to craft, touched on the subject of economic diversity and its role at Lafayette.

“A great number of respondents referred to Lafayette as a ‘bubble,'” reads the study, “where students, faculty and some staff were from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and were more educated.”

While 40.4 percent of students reported that the overall campus climate for socioeconomically disadvantaged students was moderately or very respectful, 26.6 percent of students felt the overall campus climate for socioeconomically disadvantaged students was moderately disrespectful or not at all respectful.