Crunching the Numbers
On the afternoon of March 31, 2016 the newest, and reportedly most diverse class of Jumbos in over a decade, opened their acceptance letters. Tufts’ official website, TuftsNow reported that 34 percent of the admitted class are domestic students of color and 11 percent are international students.
Despite this increase in regional and racial diversity, socioeconomic diversity is not increasing on the Tufts campus. With a growing endowment currently at $1.6 billion, one would think that the university is providing financial aid to more students every year. But the number of Tufts students on financial aid has remained stagnant—only 47 percent have received aid for the past three years.
Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Lee Coffin, said this statistic has remained constant because tuition has increased significantly. When he started working for Tufts in the 2003/2004 academic year, tuition was $38,184. Today it’s $63,698—higher than the median family income in the U.S.
Of Tufts students who receive financial aid this year, the average grant is $40,852—higher than it has ever been. This isn’t just due to inflation—more families are having trouble affording college.
Coffin explained that as tuition increases each year, more and more students are eligible for more financial aid. “Over time, the number of dollars that Tufts has raised for financial aid is on a huge upward curve, but the number of people that those dollars support has not gone up in the same way—it can’t,” he said.
The Tufts admissions team has to consider applicants’ financial aid packages when selecting the incoming class and, ultimately, some adjustments have to be made depending on who the university can and cannot afford to admit. Ideally, the admissions team would admit every student who merits a spot in the incoming class, but this is not always possible. They also must consider which students Tufts can actually support financially.
Coffin explained that his team has to operate under budgetary constraints. “My responsibility as Dean is that I can’t spend more dollars than Tufts has. They give me a checkbook every year and they say spend all of it, but don’t spend more than that,” he said. “How do we attract as diverse a student body as we can [and] meet 100 percent of the demonstrated need of everyone we accept?”
Tufts is a “need-sensitive” institution, meaning that it considers student’s finances when selecting who to admit. Only five colleges in the U.S. are “need-blind” for all applicants, meaning they can afford not to consider a student’s finances when admitting them, and still meet each student’s demonstrated need. The need-blind schools—Amherst, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and MIT—all have massive endowments between $2.9 billion (Amherst) and $37.6 billion (Harvard). At these schools, the percentage of students that receive need-based aid is higher: between 51 percent (Yale) and 60 percent (Harvard).
Since Tufts guarantees to meet all of its students’ demonstrated financial need, the financial aid office must ensure that it has the budget to accommodate applicants before it admits them. This year, Coffin said admissions had $19.7 million and 1,325 spots to consider when making their decisions. This made things challenging.
“How do I take the $19.7 million and align it with the admissions decisions in such a way that when the class enrolls on May 1, we have the representation we want?”
Pat Reilly, Tufts’ director of financial aid, also acknowledged the struggle of admitting classes that the university can afford. “In 2009, after the economy tanked, we noticed that our enrolled students needed significantly more financial aid,” she said. “So we had some years with fewer freshmen on financial aid.”
Since Tufts agrees to meet all of students’ demonstrated need, when these numbers change unexpectedly, the university has to rearrange its dollars to keep their pledge. “If you spend more on the upper classes, you spend less on the freshman class—we only have so much financial aid to go around,” Reilly said.
Dean Coffin and his team are thrilled with the newly accepted class, but he acknowledged that it’s not the class he would have admitted if Tufts was need-blind. The overall class had to be adjusted to ensure that Tufts could award each student their complete financial aid package.
The admissions team does most of the process in a need-blind fashion—they read each app and discuss its merits in committee without assessing the financial standing of the applicant. But in the end, Coffin and the financial aid team usually need to make some adjustments.
“We shape it a little bit,” Coffin said. “I add it all up at the end and say ‘based on this set of acceptances, does it stay true to the budget that the trustees have approved?’” Coffin continued, “Shifting things at the end…happens every year. One by one we’re not paying attention to how it adds up.”
Reilly explained that there is a lot of back and forth between admissions and financial aid in order to build the incoming class. “Admissions starts selecting the students and every night they send over their files,” Reilly said. “The financial aid office then reviews the applications and we send [admissions] information with estimates about what each student will need.” The financial aid department uses a software program created by the CollegeBoard called PowerFAIDS to calculate each student’s projected need. Reilly explained that PowerFAIDS has built-in formulas into which they plug each student’s information. This data includes income, expenses, and family size.
But Reilly was very clear that the financial aid office does not influence which students are admitted. “There’s a whole lot of fine tuning, but it all happens at the admissions office. The financial aid office does not make any decisions about who is admitted,” she said. “We supply them with the information and they decide who they will admit.”
Coffin wishes that Tufts could afford to be a need-blind institution, but with its budget, that is simply impossible. He remains a strong advocate for admitting a class that is as regionally, racially, and socioeconomically diverse as possible each year despite budget constraints.
“I was the first in my family to go to college,” he said. “When the Dean of Admissions is a former financial aid kid and the first in his family to go to college, it’s just part of the way I see the world.”
Coffin acknowledged that economic diversity is an issue at Tufts. “And it’s an issue everywhere on college campuses,” he said. With the exception of Amherst—the only need-blind institution in the NESCAC—Coffin stated that the economic diversity at Tufts and its peer institutions is relatively similar.
Coffin taught a course at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education called “The Principles and Policy Issues of College Admissions” that explored issues facing the modern admissions counselor. “A lot of the course looks at access… We all celebrate socioeconomic diversity, but what’s the reality? How do you map recruitment selection strategies and policies to the reality of the external and internal landscapes?” he said. And there isn’t a foolproof formula to raise the billions of dollars necessary to create a need-blind institution.
“I tell my students when you’re a dean, you’re balancing your idealism with your pragmatism,” Coffin said. “So the idealism is yes of course, have more economic diversity and justice…and then there’s the pragmatic—I can only spend the budget that I am assigned.”
When asked what he would do with an unlimited admissions budget, the first thing Coffin said was that he would make Tufts a need-blind institution. “We try to optimize the outcome with the available resources,” Coffin said. “That’s something Tufts has been really good at—being good stewards of the resources we have”