Will Bloomberg's $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins University expand opportunities for low-income students?

With a $1.8 billion gift by philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, the Johns Hopkins University will be one of a small group of colleges and universities able to offer the nation’s brightest students an education without debt.

The Bloomberg gift, the largest donation to an American university in history, is expected to expand the number of low-income and first-generation students who can attend Hopkins, allowing the institution to pick students based on merit — forever.

“They will be able to join this very small and very elite number of institutions,” said Stefanie D. Niles, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Hopkins can disregard income in the application process and substitute scholarships for loans for all undergraduates. “It lets them craft a class. They will have the opportunity to not pay attention to any financial factors.”

Whether the gift increases the socioeconomic diversity of the Hopkins student body and expands opportunities to students who aren’t now attending a selective college will depend, education experts said, on how Hopkins invests in attracting new students. By 2023, the university pledges that at least 20 percent of its student body will be eligible for federal Pell grants, up from roughly 15 percent today. These are income-based grants intended for low-income students.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Bloomberg wrote that “denying students entry to a college based on their ability to pay undermines equal opportunity. It perpetuates inter-generational poverty. And it strikes at the heart of the American dream: the idea that every person, from every community, has the chance to rise based on merit.”

In recent years, colleges and universities across the nation have been under pressure to make higher education more affordable for students who aren’t from wealthy backgrounds. A study by Harvard and Brown economists showed that students whose parents are in the top 1 percent in income are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League institution than students whose parents are in the bottom 20 percent of income.

Some colleges have successfully increased their low-income student population using need-blind policies that consider students only on merit rather than their family’s ability to pay. Vassar College and Hamilton College in New York state have seen their percentage of Pell-eligible students increase after they embraced need-blind policies. At those schools, no longer might a talented low-income student be passed over in favor of someone whose family can foot the entire bill.

During the 2010 school year, about 13 percent of first-time Hamilton students received a Pell Grant. That’s up to 19 percent this year, the highest percentage in the small liberal arts college’s history. And in the nearly 10 years Hamilton has used need-blind admissions, the school has fielded more applications, become more selective and increased the diversity of its student body – in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background and geography.

“We can’t say that’s just because of need-blind admissions,” said vice president and dean of admission and financial aid Monica Inzer, “but it sure didn’t hurt.”

Vassar went from having 7 to 8 percent of Pell-eligible students in 2007 to 23 percent, said Catherine Bond Hill, the president emeritus of Vassar. During that period the college, like Hamilton, increased its applicant pool and strengthened the academic qualifications of its student body.

“You also have to go out and recruit low-income students and have programs on campus to make sure that they are successful,” said Hill, who is now the managing director of Ithaka S + R, a consulting firm that works to broaden access to higher education. Because Hopkins has more resources than many other institutions, Hill said, students are more likely to graduate.

But others point out that Hopkins is so competitive to get into that it does not help low- and middle-income students who aren’t already on a path to college. Roughly 29,100 people applied for a spot in this year’s freshman class. About 1,300 enrolled.

When Rachel Fishman read Bloomberg’s op-ed in the New York Times, she was struck by the magnate’s assertion that opportunity should be based on merit and not wealth.

“To even get into Johns Hopkins, you have to have had the resources to do well,” said Fishman, deputy director for research with the Education Policy program at New America. “There are a lot of meritorious students who don’t end up at a Hopkins or a Harvard. They just don’t have the resources available to end up in those places.”

The magnitude of the gift, she said, makes her wonder how much better $1.8 billion could have been spent. If it had been invested in community colleges or state institutions, Fishman said, there would be a bigger bang for Bloomberg’s bucks.

“Underrepresented students are starting out at such a disadvantage that you’re not going to solve an equity gap without focusing the money on the places where most of these students are ending up,” Fishman said.

Mark Kantrowitz, an expert on college financing, said that while need-blind admissions “has some benefits in increasing diversity, it’s not as much as you would think because it’s not truly a level playing field.”

“Wealthy students can spend a few thousand dollars on an SAT prep class while low-income students can’t,” he said. Kantrowitz went on to explain that students from rich families may also have more time to boost their resumes with activities and volunteer work, while a child who grew up poor may have to work part-time jobs to support their family. College admissions, he said, “is never truly completely blind to income, even though this is a step in the right direction.”

Still, Kantrowitz predicts Hopkins will see a boost in the number of students who are applying to the school.

And Steven Goodman, an education consultant, said the danger for Hopkins is that the enormous donation will only go to making the college more competitive with its peers. Middle-income students who can get into a range of competitive colleges might pick Hopkins because of its new commitment that it will replace all loans with scholarships going forward. As a result, no Hopkins student will graduate in debt.

The question, Goodman said, will be whether Hopkins will recruit students who might not have ended up at an elite college anyway, and instead, bring into its halls students who would previously been overlooked.

Part of the money will go to just such recruitment, said Jill Rosen, a spokeswoman for the university. “The 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.”

That’s vital, experts say, given the research showing that a large number of high-achieving students from low-income families don’t even apply to selective universities.

Perhaps the most striking part of Bloomberg’s announcement – beyond the sheer size of his donation – is the idea that this money will ensure the future of a need-blind admissions “forever.”

That will, in theory, keep Johns Hopkins from going down the road of some other elite institutions that have embraced the policy and then later backed away from it in the face of mounting costs and an unstable economy.

Wesleyan University ended its need-blind admissions in 2012, citing financial pressures. The next year, the George Washington University student newspaper exposed that the school had quietly moved away from the policy and had instead been putting hundreds of applicants on its waitlist because they couldn’t afford tuition. By 2014, Clark University and other private schools had eliminated their blanket need-blind policies, too.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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