Commentary (As published) - The Washington Post

October 1, 2006

Commentary (As published) - The Washington Post

By Amy Gutmann

To end or not to end early admissions: That is the question that colleges and universities are debating once again. The passion is great, but the stakes are small and the debate is a distraction from a far more important matter: the urgent need of all but a handful of colleges and universities to improve financial aid for students from low-income and middle-income families.

At the University of Pennsylvania and many other colleges and universities, early admissions have not been an impediment to improving access, and abolishing the practice will do no significant social good. Because of our outreach activities and improved financial aid policies, many more minorities and low-income students are applying to Penn for both early and regular decisions. Once again this year we enrolled a record number (and proportion) of minority students.

But we will accomplish nothing significant in improving access for students from low- and middle-income families unless we focus our attention on strengthening our need-based financial aid program and our outreach to students who attend schools where they have not been informed about the availability of need-based financial aid.

Financial aid based on need is the great equalizer of opportunity in higher education. Nothing promotes equity and socioeconomic diversity more effectively. Even if tuition rates were frozen, a college education would simply be out of reach for low-income and most middle-income families were it not for need-based financial aid.

Over the past two decades, most colleges and universities have moved in precisely the wrong direction: They have increasingly relied on merit-based aid (scholarships based on scholastic ability) and athletic scholarships, both of which disproportionately favor students from higher-income families, rather than need-based aid. Consequently, they have widened the enrollment gap between high-income and both middle- and low-income students.

Recently a relatively tiny number of colleges and universities (Penn included) have dramatically improved financial aid -- based on need -- for low-income students. Last year we substituted grants for loans for students from families earning less than $50,000 a year.

The road to greater access must be paved with more than good intentions. Making college truly accessible to middle-income as well as low-income students is a daunting financial challenge. The total increase in grant aid at Penn over the past five years has been twice the rate of our tuition increases. For colleges and universities to do our part in making high-quality higher education affordable -- and therefore accessible -- to talented, hardworking students from all backgrounds, fundraising for need-based financial aid must take priority.

The stakes are even higher than is conveyed by the ideal of equal educational opportunity. American democracy can flourish and our economy remain competitive on a global stage only if we offer the highest-quality education to the most talented children from all socioeconomic backgrounds. For the sake of our nation's future, federal and state governments need to do their part in improving elementary and secondary education and in joining with us -- for example, by significantly increasing the level of Pell grants and extending financial aid to more middle-income students -- to make college a realistic aspiration for all.

Both the ideal of equal educational opportunity and the reality of our country's future standing in the world demand that academia not be distracted by internecine debates in which relatively little will be gained or lost, regardless of who is right, and instead focus our efforts on providing a quality education and increasing financial aid based on need for all students.