Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

How One of America's Best Colleges Is Destroying Itself

Whitman College, the gem of a small private liberal arts school in Walla Walla, Washington, has long been a mainstay of the Colleges That Change Lives lineup, along with schools like Antioch, Cornell and Marlboro. Whitman is an excellent, beautiful, and fairly safe college that students are lucky to attend. If you are applying there now, it just might be the right fit for you.

The school is also now in the middle of a search for a new president. At the same time, the college is being strangled by a long-serving, insular and controlling board of trustees, a weak and poorly rated president who inspired a faculty revolt, and an intentionally toothless alumni board of overseers. The school has turned its back on needs-blind admissions and on any reasonable commitment to diversity. Because of this, the school has gotten its comeuppance in a New York Times analysis of private schools that places the college absolutely dead last in terms of economic diversity.

This ranking was no accident. This was Whitman's goal. An analysis of the school's common data set from 2001 to 2013 shows how they did it.

You can see two things here. In blue is the number of incoming freshmen that applied for need-based financial aid and were also judged to be in need each year. Back in the previous decade, the school was attempting to join the club of colleges that practiced "need-blind" admissions. In 2010, the school moved to describe itself as "need-sensitive." The number of students who required financial aid was, on the whole, steadily growing. In 2011 and 2012, the school admitted fewer students who needed financial aid to attend college—and increased aid to students without need.

In red is the number of those students who had their need met at 100 percent. (The other students had their need met partially—often substantially.) In 2007, 81 percent of students with financial need had their need fully met. In 2013, only 53 percent did.

This shows the percentage of incoming freshmen receiving financial aid who did, or did not, have their need met at 100 percent.

It wasn't just that incoming freshmen were now less likely to have their entire need met. As a whole, the percentage of need met peaked at 99 percent in 2006, and then began to steadily drop, all the way down to 91 percent in 2011. (Who knows what happened in 2003! Possibly a misreporting, though there was also a recession.)

As we all know, at the same time, college was getting ever more expensive. So the average actual dollar amount given per freshman with need was actually growing. Whitman, like other colleges, was, in its way, definitely committed to financial aid.

But then, so was the tuition.

(A number of tuition values are missing from their documents. The school's first reported tuition on these documents is $30,530 in 2005.)

Let's put those together.

At the same time, the school's assistance to students with need didn't keep pace with increases in tuition.

Over this time period, the amount of financial aid given to students did grow! And the school focused its money on students with need, over time. But that transition began to slowly stall and reverse starting in 2010, returning more scholarship and grant money to students without need. (The chart above tracks all students, not freshmen.)

Overall, most of these changes are a fairly subtle shift, in pure numbers. But at a school of just a bit over 1500 people, eliminating a dozen—or three dozen—students with need from an admitted class in favor of paying customers has an impact. So does less financial aid overall in a class, particularly when almost half the class is receiving aid. Even the gentlest hand on the lever ups the school's income, reduces the school's percentage of fully met aid recipients, and, yes, also sets the school up to win the award for the least economically diverse excellent private college in the country.

Why did this happen?

Whitman has been through this before. In the early 90s, Whitman was meeting 100 percent of student need. The percentage of students receiving Pell grants (federal grants for students with need) "rose from around 13 percent to about 19.5 percent," according to a history by Whitman sociology professor Neal Christopherson in 2004. The school then cut that student base so drastically that only 8.8 percent of students were receiving Pell grants by 2001. (The most recent data used by the Times shows that only 10 percent of students receive Pell grants now, down from 13 percent in 2008.) The outcome of this change in admission? "Whitman College has enrolled fewer students from lower- and lower-middle income families," Christopherson concluded, and: "over the last decade the economic diversity of campus has slowly declined."

The more recent data show that after this report, Whitman tried again to achieve economic diversity.

But then, at the time of the most recent recession, financial panic ensued. Whitman again changed their admissions ratio to admit fewer students who were poor and more who were rich. The school's admission consultant's job, in this case, is simply to draw a line in the list of students who would be admitted, cutting off the bottom chunk of students who would need aid.

That's why the White House College Scorecard says the net increase in real money paid by students at Whitman, after grants and aid, "increased 7.3 percent from 2008 to 2010."

According to their tax returns, in both 2008 and 2011, the college took a loss on its investment income. In 2008, the school was in the hole overall to the tune of $13 million, in terms of revenue after expenses, with only $68 million in revenue. In 2011, another bad year, the school "only" had revenues of $86 million.

But in 2012, the college's revenue more than exceeded $150 million, entirely boosted by investment revenue of nearly $60 million. (It's likely that you'll see the school taking this into account in this and next year's admission and financial aid numbers.) That investment income number was almost as much as the amount of revenue from students, which was about $72 million in both 2011 and 2012. The college is absolutely maximizing its revenues from attendees, by means of who they admit.

"Program service revenue" is money the college makes, excluding investment income, gifts and grants. Essentially, it's what they make from tuition, room and board.

Whitman's student body exceeded 1500 students for the first time in the 2010-2011 school year. More students, not even just more well-off students, means more money. The total number of students in 2001 was 1,439; the total number of students now is 1,541.

After the school abandoned the term "need-blind," they adopted different language. "We strive to provide access to a wide group of students, but it is not possible for us to meet 100 percent of every student's need" is the tepid language on the school's financial aid page now. This is a clear indicator to students who can't afford to pay for college that they probably should not apply.

It's one of the reasons that the school's application—and then actual attendance—rates are so low. Students who don't see themselves at the campus—so, many poor people, and also many black people—simply don't apply, or do apply and then do not attend.

For the 2014 entering class, 3,807 students applied. 1,551 were admitted—an extremely high admission rate of 41 percent. Only 420 enrolled—so almost 3/4s of students admitted choose not to attend. Of those who will attend, 83 percent of those students are white—much whiter than the current 72 percent white student body—and 2/3rds of those students are from Washington, Oregon and California. Five incoming freshmen are black. (This is surprising, given the diversity of the admissions office.) And only 10 percent of this incoming class are first generation students. (Harvard is 15 percent first generation; Yale is 12 percent; Grinnell famously has a minimum 15 percent admissions policy.) The faculty, by the way, is 89 percent white.

Here's another strange number about the incoming class: a full 20 percent of the freshman class are "recruited athletes." In 2011, only 14 percent were; the new director of admissions, hired in 2013, was brought on in part on the strength of his history as an international recruiter but also as an athletic recruiter. The student body is actually becoming less diverse.

Budgetary choices at the school in its recession panic were reflected in other ways than admission. In a "budget shortfall" of $2 million that began in 2009—although the president described the college as "financially sound" at the same time—faculty and staff were asked to find a way to save $150,000. Under duress, they proposed to do so by beginning to contribute salary to their healthcare plans. (Just like in the last cycle, in 1992, faculty and staff had gone without raises for a while.) The actual shortfall in the budget, of course, was short-lived.

All this is the work of trustees who have served the college long in excess of the recommended time of service. According to its constitution, "generally" no trustee should serve longer than three consecutive four-year terms. Some trustees report they have served for 16 and 13 years; some trustees roll off for a term, so that their terms are not consecutive, and then roll right back on. Billionaire (and Microsoft board member) John Stanton was first elected chair in the early 90s, and is its chair again.

What will a new president bring to Whitman? That'll depend on the hiring committee. Whitman's concerns often revolve around the idea of "culture fit," which means what it usually means in white organizations—particularly geographically remote organizations that have little involvement or experience with other institutions. The culture of the college and the culture of the region are about "niceness," which means not making waves, which means "fitting in"—an experience that new faculty recruited from beyond Washington state have struggled with. As the college is backing away from popular ideas like need-blind admissions and commitment to diversity, and as it attempts to squeeze its student body for income, the ideas they'll be hearing from applicants to the presidency will probably allow them to eliminate many superb candidates right out of the gate.

Disclosures: Undoubtedly an examination of the school's public data and conclusions drawn from it will be considered extremely tasteless and not at all nice by Whitman folks. I've relied here entirely on public data and published information—instead of private documents—for just that reason. My opinions are my own, but are constituted from talking to former students, overseers, trustees and professors over the last four years, including close family, none of whom read this or endorsed it prior to publication.

Finally, all this isn't meant to suggest that this (and worse things!) isn't happening also at other colleges, big and small.

As par for the course, naturally there are a few complaints about the New York Times study data that ranked Whitman last for economic diversity. (Whitman surely has a few complaints of its own.) Including only 100 colleges with a 75 percent or more graduation rate restricts the list to small, well-off schools—eliminating tons of schools that would womp these private institutions by these metrics. Also, absolute numbers would be more useful possibly when comparing tiny schools with larger schools. Finally, it would be nice if the dataset for financial aid stretched back further than 2008. But the data remains useful, although you can certainly read the comments at the Times for excellent arguments about all of this.