Last week, Michael Bloomberg announced a $1.8 billion gift to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to make the school “forever need-blind” and eliminate loans from student aid packages. Although lauded as an important step toward opening the doors of a highly selective school to a wider range of students, Bloomberg’s donation has also raised a number of questions about the role of such gifts in confronting the broader crisis of access and affordability in higher education.
Question 1: Can this gift (and others like it) transform college access and affordability?
With acceptance rates in the low teens or even single digits, schools like Hopkins and those in the Ivy League educate a small portion of the college student population, The Atlantic notes. The vast majority of students attend public institutions, which tend not to get such large gifts and are facing reduced state support. Gifts like Bloomberg’s often prompt a question: “How transformational can they really be?”
Much smaller amounts can have a transformative impact on public institutions, MarketWatch adds. For example, a $350 million commitment by the state of Tennessee to provide free community college has helped 50,000 students to date. “Somebody gives a $100,000 to a community college, and the president falls over with joy,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University and founder of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, noting the need for housing support and advising services at less-selective institutions.
Ultimately, however, “We cannot rely entirely on philanthropy to get us out of the college affordability crisis,” says Mark Huelsman, a researcher at Demos, a think tank. Bloomberg agrees, asserting in a piece he authored in the The New York Times that “federal and state governments should make a new commitment to improving access to college and reducing the often prohibitive burdens debt places on so many students and families.”
Question 2: Is cost the biggest obstacle to access to highly selective institutions?
Lower-income, first-generation students are less likely to apply to selective institutions, regardless of their qualifications, and more likely to drop-out, Quartz notes. At Berea College, which provides free tuition and board to its disproportionately lower-income student body, the drop-out rate is still 50 percent, which researchers attribute to a lack of preparation for the rigors of college and lack of role models in their personal lives who have completed college.
And, according to Goldrick-Rab, even without cost as a barrier, it’s difficult to take wealth out of admissions equation, given that “access to the kinds of things that make students look good in front of admissions committees—high test scores, rigorous coursework, interesting extracurricular activities etc.—are strongly correlated with wealth.”
Bloomberg recognizes this challenge, noting in The Times that “we need to improve college advising so that more students from more diverse backgrounds apply to select colleges.” His foundation-funded program College Point has provided admissions and financial aid counseling to almost 50,000 low- and middle-income students.
Question 3: How will Hopkins meet its goal of increasing the percentage of Pell-eligible students?
Perhaps overshadowed by the amount of Bloomberg’s gift was Hopkins’ commitment to increasing the portion of its students eligible for federal Pell grants, which are available to students from low-income families, from 15 percent to 20 percent by 2023—an objective that observers say will require Hopkins to change its recruitment strategy.
Being need-blind and eliminating loans from financial aid packages will help, as it will make Hopkins more inviting to lower-income students deciding where to apply and more competitive against peers whose financial aid packages include loans, Inside Higher Ed reports. But how will Hopkins identify and encourage those students who might not ever consider a highly selective school in the first place? A Hopkins spokesperson told The Baltimore Sun that Bloomberg’s gift “will also fund aggressive outreach and recruitment strategy toward academically-achieving students from low-income and middle-class backgrounds so that they know that financial resources are not a barrier to attaining a world-class education.”
Other institutions have taken more dramatic steps to increase the diversity of applicants—including eliminating standardized test scores from application requirements, as the University of Chicago did earlier this year. Although Hopkins has not announced similar plans, “everything is on the table,” a university official says.