Editorial: Tufts admissions process favors wealthy applicants. That needs to change.

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Students have long expressed frustration over the university’s lack of budget transparency and its implications for admissions. The rate of Tufts’ students receiving financial aid has remained low and stagnant, hovering around 46% for the past five years, according to the university factbook. Tufts has long practiced “need-aware” admissions, meaning a students’ ability to pay is a factor when deciding whether or not they will be admitted. As such, the university should take steps to ensure Tufts is more accessible for lower-income students.

“When evaluating an individual application for admission, we look at what an applicant presents to us based on their merits — academics and what they would bring to the campus community — without taking into account their financial status,” JT Duck, dean of admissions, wrote in an email to the Daily. “However, when assembling the class, we are forced to make some difficult decisions because our financial aid resources are finite.”

Tufts is importantly taking steps to expand the financial aid budget and this year became an inaugural member of the Schuler Access Initiative, which, as Tufts raises financial aid money, “will match those gifts up to $25 million to support the enrollment of even more Pell Grant recipients and low-income students with undocumented or DACA status over the next ten years,” Duck said.

While we commend Tufts for its growth of the financial aid budget, there is more that can be done to promote equity. Many other nearby schools such as Amherst College, Wellesley College, Boston College and Bowdoin College have need-blind admissions policies, though these schools differ from Tufts in size and endowment. Even at George Washington University, which practices need-aware admissions and has a somewhat smaller endowment than Tufts, 65% of students receive financial aid compared to just  41% of Tufts students, as of 2020.

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“I do not foresee becoming need blind on the immediate horizon, but I am heartened that our aid budget continues to grow, allowing us to enroll students from an ever greater array of socioeconomic backgrounds,” Duck wrote.

Tufts has cited budget constraints as the primary barrier against moving toward need-blind admissions. Indeed, only a select few schools, many with larger endowments than Tufts, are both need-blind and meet full demonstrated financial need without loans. Even so, there’s a lot more Tufts can do to combat elitism at the school. While Tufts may not currently be able to make the move to need-blind admission, the university must move to embrace a need-blind and full-need admissions strategy as a primary objective.

It’s also important to note just how much economic diversity Tufts lacks. A 2017 study by the New York Times, for example, found that Tufts had more students from the top 1% of the income scale than the bottom 60%. Tufts had the 10th-worst gap in economic inequality among the nearly 2,000 schools included in the study. It’s clear that drastic action is needed to promote economic diversity.

Tufts expresses an unwavering commitment to make its campus accessible and accommodating for a diverse group of students. However, in maintaining a need-aware model that considers the wealth of its student body, Tufts is failing to live up to these ideals. While we appreciate the challenges of growing the financial aid budget, Tufts must make equitable access a priority in admissions.

With the lack of data on Tufts’ economic diversity, students are left to wonder just how much our need-aware admissions policies favor wealthier students. In 2018, Tufts published previously unavailable data on socioeconomic diversity but has yet to do so again. The data show that for the class of 2021, 75% of students came from the top 20% of income-earning families while only 3.8% came from the bottom 20%. These numbers make it clear that the Tufts admissions process worryingly favors wealthy students. Notably, data on economic diversity — specifically, on family income levels — was absent from Tufts’ profile of the Class of 2026. We urge Tufts to make this data publicly available, especially given that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit low-income communities the hardest.

A lack of transparency about Tufts’ spending makes it difficult to assess the university’s ability to give out financial aid to low-income students. While it is understandable that the COVID-19 pandemic demanded more spending from Tufts, the lack of transparency and glaring income inequality make it difficult to excuse need awareness even as a result of this particularly justifiable deficit.

Tufts’ expansion presents an opportunity to make its actions reflect its ethos of equal opportunity. The difficult economic conditions of the late 2000s that ended Tufts’ need-blind experiment have changed, but the admissions process at Tufts remains geared toward the acceptance of wealthier students. In the coming years, Tufts will likely find even more success in attracting applicants and has demonstrated its access to revenue in recent projects like the construction of the Joyce Cummings Center. With these resources, Tufts has the responsibility to expand low-income students’ access to higher education in elite institutions. With a record-low acceptance rate of 9% this year, Tufts’ incoming class should represent the most capable students, not the wealthiest.

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