This “Household Words” column appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

To all members of the Macalester community,

Among the chief responsibilities of any Macalester president is to communicate with a large, far-flung and typically passionate community about matters of knotty complexity and compelling importance to the college. About such issues it is especially critical that our channels of communication be open and our level of collective understanding high.

Currently under discussion is a subject that in my view rises to this level of consequence, both because of its significance to the college and because of its susceptibility to being misperceived: that is, the nature and extent of Macalester’s commitment to need-based financial aid.

For some this topic may be reduced to the question of whether Macalester should preserve its current version of the policy known, in the parlance of our industry, as “need-blind” admissions. Another and perhaps more revealing way of framing the question is this: through what mechanisms can the college manage to fulfill its longstanding commitment to serving an economically diverse group of students and its equally longstanding commitment to being, in the words of our mission statement, “a preeminent liberal arts college with an educational program known for its high standards for scholarship”? How can we manage to exemplify both access and excellence?

Financial aid and access

Let me begin by defining the depth and breadth of Macalester’s present commitment to access. The college has pledged to meet the full financial need of all admitted students. Because we attract a less affluent population than do most of our peers or even the University of Minnesota, more than 70 percent of our current students receive need-based grant aid; our average “discount rate”—that is, the percentage of tuition that on average a Macalester student does not pay—is about 45 percent; financial aid comprises roughly 24 percent of our overall operating budget, more than we spend on the combined salaries for all our faculty members, the combined salaries for all our staff members, the combined cost of running our physical plant, or the combined cost of all academic, athletic and co-curricular programs.

All of these financial aid figures are higher—typically much higher—than the figures at virtually all other colleges of similar quality and character, whether or not they are need-blind. At Carleton College, for instance, which is not need-blind, 50 percent of students receive need-based aid; at Williams College, which is need-blind, 40 percent of students receive such aid. The “discount rate” at those colleges in 2002–2003 was 29 and 24 percent respectively. There is no doubt in my mind that Macalester’s commitment to access is more deep-rooted and tangible than what can be found at the vast majority of our peers, that we perform a service to society in holding to that commitment, and that we benefit immensely from the range of backgrounds and perspectives that economic diversity brings to our campus.

We cannot, however, turn away from the challenges with which this commitment to access presents us. Because financial aid is both our largest and our least controllable expense, our budget is both more strapped and more difficult to manage than at other, similar colleges. Money spent on financial aid is money that cannot be spent on the faculty, staff, programs, sports, facilities, study-abroad opportunities and other reasons for which students attend Macalester. What is invested in access to Macalester cannot be invested in what happens at Macalester. The question here—both an ethical and a practical one, I think—is how do we balance the good of providing access against the good of providing the best possible education for the students we exist to serve?

Spending less on students

This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that Macalester now receives, and has long received, less philanthropic support than do most of our peers: more dollars flow out in the form of aid while fewer dollars flow in from charitable gifts. By nearly any measure—overall giving, annual fund giving, percentage of alumni who contribute—Macalester continues to lag well below the median in our peer group, a reality we are working energetically and with some success to change, a reality that I am convinced will change, but a part of our history and our present nonetheless. Our endowment, while healthy, is about average within that peer group and is not nearly large enough to fund even a majority of the operations of the college. One telling way of measuring our commitment to access is to note that the amount we spent on financial aid in 2003–2004 ($20 million) comprised about 80 percent of our total endowment distribution for the year—meaning that we might describe the endowment as being used chiefly to support access and only marginally to support the activities of the college. That number is projected to rise to 89 percent in 2004–2005 and to nearly 100 percent in 2005–2006.

This combination of factors means that at present Macalester is able to spend considerably less on our students than do most of our peers. In 2002–2003, for instance, our expenditures per student exclusive of financial aid were $9,000 less than at Carleton, $8,000 less than at Hamilton and $8,000 less than at Colby, all of which have endowments of roughly the same size as our own. We spent less per student than Kenyon, Bates and Connecticut College, each of whose endowments is less than half of our own.

Such numbers may seem abstract and irrelevant; more concrete are these facts:

  • The compensation of our faculty has in recent years been falling relative to the compensation of their peers.
  • Our staff size per student is the lowest within our 40-school comparison group, meaning that the people who clean the residence halls and process the data and provide counseling to our students are working extraordinarily hard to meet the needs and expectations of those they serve.
  • Our expenditures in such critical areas as technology and the library are also well below average.
  • Our student:faculty ratio, one of the most visible indicators of quality at liberal arts colleges, has slipped from 10:1 to 11:1.
  • For three consecutive years we have decreased our controllable non-personnel expenses and have done much more cutting than adding.

Though we must assiduously seek out opportunities to be more efficient and cost-effective, we have in recent years hardly been profligate.

Most troubling of all may be the fact that the problem appears to be growing: our rate of tuition discount (along with our need to cut budgets) has for a decade been increasing much more quickly than at other top liberal arts colleges.

Of course, resources are not the only indicator of excellence, but they are in education, as in virtually any other enterprise, an important indicator: while financial investment is no guarantee of academic quality, the absence of such investment pretty much guarantees that quality will suffer. And we seek quality not to satisfy some external audience or to chase reputation, but to fulfill our own internal and intrinsic responsibility to educate global citizens and leaders at the highest possible level. To shirk that responsibility by diluting the quality of a Macalester education would be to neglect our primary social obligation and to squander the glorious opportunities with which this college is presented.

Balancing access and quality

So how do we confront this dilemma? The answer cannot be to turn away from the challenge because it is complex and uncomfortable to discuss or to retreat behind phrases that often conceal more than they reveal. “Need-blind,” for instance, is itself a somewhat misleading term. At Macalester we have for years been “need-blind” only for domestic non-transfer students, meaning that we treat both international applicants and transfer applicants, who together comprise about 20 percent of our applicant pool, differently than the rest—and clearly for financial reasons. In other words, if there is an ethical Rubicon to be crossed between need-blind and need-aware admissions policies, we have already crossed it. As I mentioned earlier, many of the schools that describe themselves as need-blind (almost all of which are wealthier than Macalester) enroll very affluent student populations. Many of these schools also give substantial admissions advantages to the children of alumni, who tend as a group to be much wealthier than the average applicant; some recruit very aggressively in private and preparatory schools or target selected zip codes. All of these strategies maximize the yield of “no-need” students without formally violating the “need-blind” admissions guidelines of the college. It is critical to understand that need-blind policies are no guarantee of a deep commitment to access, just as need-aware policies are not inconsistent with such a commitment. In fact, there is no correlation nationally between need-blind admissions policies and either economic or racial diversity on liberal arts college campuses. What defines a commitment to access is not chiefly a particular admissions policy, but the actual size of the financial aid budget, the actual students enrolled at the college and the willingness to create a campus culture and climate genuinely welcoming to an economically representative student body.

My own view is that responsible stewardship of Macalester means working to find an appropriate and honest balance between access and quality, a balance that adheres to our values while ensuring the means to preserve and enhance the quality of what we do for our students. This means continuing to devote more resources to financial aid than do most of our peers—because that is Macalester’s distinctive character and distinctive strength—yet setting a reasonable limit on that expenditure so that it does not overwhelm and undermine everything else that we do. Financial aid must continue to be a very large expenditure, but it must become a controllable expenditure. To that end, the Board of Trustees has spent much time during the past year discussing the question of tuition revenue, and I directed the Resource Planning Committee—a standing committee composed of faculty, staff and students—to examine the same question and to make recommendations on how we might proceed. Their report is now complete and may be obtained by e-mailing and requesting a copy; I would encourage anyone interested in this issue to peruse one. The chief recommendations of the committee are summarized here.

I would encourage you to read the summary with care. Read it more than once. It forms the heart of our discussion, and it is important. The committee is not recommending that Macalester stop meeting the full need of all admitted students; in fact, it is recommending the opposite. It is not recommending that we become a college only for the affluent or that we abandon a strong and clearly articulated commitment to access; in fact, it is recommending that we guarantee that commitment through a robust financial aid budget. It is recommending that we put in place a mechanism to ensure that financial aid does not grow disproportionately to, and therefore undermine, everything else that we do. Indeed, I believe that the committee is suggesting that to fail to put in place such a mechanism would be to act irresponsibly toward future generations of Macalester students and to neglect our responsibilities as stewards of the college.

Competing priorities

Virtually everyone would agree that in the best of all possible worlds the perpetuation of our current policy of need-blind admissions—indeed, the expansion of that policy to include transfer and international students—would be a good. At the same time, and only within the past year, the faculty has voted not to reduce staffing levels in our programs in Russian and Japanese and to bolster staffing in our popular Environmental Studies program; students, faculty, and parents have lamented the absence of Chinese-language instruction, and students have petitioned for the addition of a program in Middle Eastern Studies; parents and students have questioned the absence of more living space on campus and have protested against the loss of Nordic skiing as an intercollegiate sport; many have approached me to complain with some justice about our outdated facilities for students in art, theater, and music and for recreation and athletics; a variety of student groups have lobbied for the addition of an environmental director to our staff, and others have called for additional staff in Multicultural Affairs.

No one, by contrast, has approached me to lobby for the elimination or reduction of any current program or activity. Like financial aid, each of the things desired by the aforementioned groups may be described as a good, in the sense that it would contribute to the education of Macalester students and to the enhancement of the Macalester community. To place fiscal constraints on all academic and co-curricular activities and yet to hold to our current financial aid policies at all costs is to say, very directly, that there is no limit on the extent to which the quality of our programs will be sacrificed to our commitment to aid and that the good of access in any and all circumstances takes precedence over the good of academic excellence and even over the fiscal stability of the college. This seems to me inconsistent with our fundamental mission and a real threat to our reason for being. To ensure the viability of Macalester for years to come, the goals of access and quality must be brought into sensible and appropriate balance.

The individuals on the Board of Trustees, on the Resource Planning Committee and across campus who have taken on this complex question have done so out of a deep commitment to the mission and purpose of our great college. We owe it to them and to students present and future to respond with care and informed understanding to one of the great challenges confronting not only this institution, but American higher education as it attempts to balance quality and access in the 21st century. Already we have held informational meetings on this topic with faculty, staff, students and alumni, and we will be holding more. I hope and trust that you will follow and participate in these discussions as they unfold and that you will support this effort to secure the future of Macalester.