George Washington University Rejected Students Simply Because They Were Too Poor

A report finds that the university told applicants that money didn't matter even as they explicitly accepted students on the basis of income.

For years, George Washington University, one of the country's most expensive colleges, promised families they didn't consider income in the admissions process while secretly rejecting students who couldn't afford tuition.

That was the upshot of a Monday article in the The GW Hatchet that, as Inside Higher Ed delicately put it, has left the the university "rushing to explain itself." Until last week, the school claimed be "need-blind," meaning that it supposedly admitted applicants no matter how much tuition they could afford to pay. In fact, the university's admissions office had been taking financial need into account all along. The school has now officially rebranded itself as "need-aware."

Here's how Laurie Koehler, the GW's new provost for enrollment management, described their process: 

“We have our internal preliminary decision of admit or waitlist or deny, and then we run the numbers and then we go, 'Okay, we have to do a little bit of shuffling here,'” Koehler said. She said the decision only impacts students who are not among GW's top applicants.

A more straightforward way to put it is this: First the admissions office picks a class based on merit. Then they move some financially needy applicants to the waitlist, which all but amounts to a rejection, and admit richer applicants in their place to make the books balance. Some schools have openly defended this approach by arguing that it allows them to offer fuller financial-aid packages to the lower-income students they do admit. That's the line GW is adopting now, and it may or may not be true. At the very least, their approach is less ethically disturbing than the widespread practice of "gapping," where schools admit students on a need blind basis, but frequently award them a financial aid package that's too small, sometimes with the express purpose of discouraging them from attending. Kids who fail to take the hint just sink deeper into debt. 

But don't let that dull your outrage at GW. Students wasted their time and (if the school didn't waive their fee) wasted their money by applying under the mistaken impression that the university didn't care about their family's bank account. It also seems to have been part of a pattern. As Inside Higher Ed notes, these new revelations come less than a year after the school admitted to submitting false data to U.S. News & World Report's college rankings. (Afterwards, the school's dean of undergraduate admissions retired, and admissions office was restructured).

Finally, this incident is also symptomatic of a wider sickness in higher education: the mania for prestige. Even while it's freezing out poorer qualified applicants, the university continues using "merit aid" to recruit desirable students who might be able to pay their own way. GW isn't alone in that practice. It just got caught covering it up. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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