Op/Ed: Perspectives on AU admissions

AU has an inequality problem

by John Foti

For a white male who wears a suit to work nearly every day of the week, I feel rather out of place at AU.

Yes, AU is inclusive culturally. There are a multitude of different ethnicities and nationalities everywhere on campus. But when it comes to income distribution, AU is really not that diverse.

In fact, AU is the perfect model for income inequality in the U.S. and this problem only seems to be getting worse. This school is out of reach to many economically disadvantaged students, and as the son of a single mother who makes less than my tuition costs per year, I am a part of that minority.

According to the Department of Education, about 50 percent of AU students have federal student loans and 60 percent have some kind of grant or scholarship in the 2011-2012 academic year. But most can’t afford AU even with financial aid because of the $38,000 tuition fee.

That’s over half of my mother’s income in a single year.

The population of students who pay for their tuition up front is actually larger. According to AU, six out of 10 students graduate without student debt. Therefore, if 60 percent of students don’t have student debt after college, that means either they aren’t receiving loans at all or their parents are paying for them immediately.

But even as students rant about it in their policy classes, inequality is real on this campus and it is turning away deserving students. Almost half of the country makes less than $50,000 a year, which means that half of the country cannot afford an AU education. This molds AU into a school of the elite and tarnishes its reputation.

Not only do I feel out of place financially, but socially as well. I was once sitting around a group of friends, and someone remarked that she would not be able to attend AU if her parents did not fund her entire education. Everyone in the group agreed, and I just sat there quietly trying not to be embarrassed.

But why should I feel embarrassed? I invested in my education to advance my interest and love for politics. That is something to be proud of.

Yet many students will not risk taking on thousands of dollars worth of debt to attend a college of their dreams. And who can blame them? In today’s job market, everything is stacked against an individual who is buried in debt.

Most AU students do not understand what it is like to be financially disadvantaged. They only “learn” about it through non-profits and charity work. But those experiences leave students walking away thinking about numbers on a graph rather than actual people struggling to make something of themselves.

There are millions of kids out there like me. I’ve been lucky, and therefore feel the need to call out this problem. I love AU, and I want to see it become an engine for reducing inequality, not maximizing it.

AU should reexamine the students it accepts and take more financially disadvantaged students who have the ability to perform well and succeed, and give more aid to those already studying at AU and are struggling with tuition payments.

It’s not about punishing success or punishing those who are more well-off. It’s about giving students the opportunity to study at a prestigious school in our nation’s capital. If we truly as a nation, and as a university, want to reduce the barriers that hold so many young kids back, then we must first start with our own institution.

John Foti is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs.

AU is committed to socioeconomic diversity

by Sharon Alston and Shirleyne McDonald

AU’s commitment to socioeconomic diversity is demonstrated in two ways: its holistic admissions approach and its comprehensive evaluation of each family’s financial circumstances. Inclusiveness and diversity have long been hallmarks of AU.

But, since 2010, AU has made significant strides in removing potential barriers to access and affordability – implementing a number of admission and financial aid strategies to attract best fit students regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic background.

As a result, the percentage of incoming students who demonstrate the highest level of need as determined by their eligibility for the Federal Pell Grant increased by roughly 50 percent from 213 in 2009 to 303 in 2013. These gains are attributed in large part to:

• implementation of a test optional admission process
• increase in overall institutional financial assistance while moderating tuition increases
• targeting a greater percentage of institutional resources to meet the financial need of students
• shifting the balance between merit-based and need-based financial aid
• actively raising awareness and educating students and families on limiting and managing student debt.

The 55 percent of loan borrowers at AU in the graduating class of 2012 is well below the 75 percent national average for students attending four-year, private, non-profit universities who took out a student loan during their college tenure, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Additionally, almost half (45 percent) of the class of 2012 graduated without any student loan debt.

Test optional

AU has a long tradition of carefully evaluating each admissions application using an array of data from several sources. While standardized tests provide a facet of information regarding the applicant’s qualifications, it is not the sole or primary indicator of a student’s academic potential. In fact, data indicates that a student’s high school grades are much stronger predictors of undergraduate performance than standardized test scores.

In a 2009 report released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, admission officers were encouraged to utilize standardized test results only when necessary and to develop evaluation methods that were less reliant on test scores as current methods were a deterrent to students who were low income or first generation college students. In the interest of increasing access to AU for students of all backgrounds, AU has offered a test optional admissions process since Fall 2010. This strategy has garnered measurable success as the number of incoming freshmen from underrepresented groups has increased significantly, including first generation and Pell-eligible students. Of the 2010 incoming class, only 6 percent were first generation college students and 14 percent were Pell-eligible students. Currently, the incoming freshmen class encompasses over 11 percent and 19 percent first generation and Pell-eligible students respectively.

Minimizing tuition increases, constraining costs

Recognizing that the rising cost of tuition is an ever present concern for students and families, AU has made a concerted effort to address college affordability. AU has tackled this issue by creating a long-term fiscally conservative plan that ensures sustainability and the highest caliber educational experience for the AU community. AU has aggressively sought ways to decrease cost through budget constraints. This is evident in the most recent modest tuition increases of less than 3 percent for the 2013-14, and 2014-15 academic years. AU’s value relative to cost has also been recognized by Princeton Review.

Meeting financial needs

Moreover, AU has increased that amount of assistance provided, targeting its resources to meet the demonstrated need of students. From 2010 to 2014, the amount of financial assistance provided by AU has increased by $21 million, a 36 percent increase. Consequently, the percentage of undergraduate students who demonstrate the highest level of financial need has increased from 14 percent of the class to nearly 20 percent. Additionally, over 50 percent of undergraduates receive some form of need based assistance from AU.

Minimizing debt

AU has countered the national trend of rising student indebtedness, by implementing a number of initiatives to heighten awareness and educate students and families. These initiatives include Financial Literacy programs, federal loan counseling workshops and the college affordability information campaign. The efficacy of these programs in combination with AU’s financial strategies have resulted the reduction of AU student indebtedness after four years from it’s high of over $41,000 for the class of 2009 to just over $32,000 for class 2013 graduates who borrowed loans. Also of note, 42 percent of the class of 2013 graduated without debt.

Ultimately, as is the case with any purchase, families must factor in the overall cost of a higher education and what it means within the context of the family. It is the responsibility of higher education to find the means to remove cost as a barrier in the interest of creating access for students.

AU continually seeks to attract students who embody the mission and ideals of AU and understands that removing barriers ensures a diverse and engaged student body. By emphasizing a holistic admission process-constraining costs, meeting student demonstrated financial need and reducing student indebtedness-AU has taken steps to eliminate impediments to access and affordability.

Sharon Alston is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Enrollment and Shirleyne McDonald is the Associate Director of Financial Aid at AU.

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle

Would you like to support our work? Donate here to The Eagle Innovation Fund.