For decades, Washington and Lee has been stagnant in its racial and geographic diversity. Over 80 percent of W&L students are white, and more than half hail from the South.
In the 2018 strategic plan, one of W&L’s primary goals is to attract a more diverse student body. It’s not new. The university has set the same goal for years, as recently as its last strategic plan in 2007.
For fall 2018, about 17 percent of the incoming class identified as domestic students of color, or 83 out of 474.
“Once you are a student from a different ethnicity or you’re a student from a low-income environment, it’s daunting even to just come on a visit and be like, ‘I’m one of the only ones of my kind here. Why would I want to go to a school like that? I just don’t feel secure, and I don’t feel like I belong,’” said senior Kirsten McMichael, who receives a full need-based scholarship to attend W&L.
At Williams College in Massachusetts, a comparable liberal arts school, 37 percent of incoming students identified as domestic students of color. At Vassar College in New York, about 32 percent of incoming freshmen identified as such.
“Our peers are in a place that’s certainly more ethnically diverse,” said Sally Stone Richmond, vice president for admissions and financial aid. “If you go back and go, ‘OK, W&L went coed fifteen to twenty years after most of our peers did,’ I think the same can be said a bit about where we are with the composition of our student body.”
Campus organizations like FLIP, First-Generation Low-Income Partnership, provide resources and mentoring for students who need them.
FLIP was created last year by senior Taylor Reese with the help of junior Edwin Castellanos Campos and 2017 graduate Kiki Spiezio. The organization connects low-income and first-generation college students with professors who were once in their position.
“It’s great that we’re bringing in more diverse students and more diverse candidates, but [it’s important] to be vigilant and continue to work for them and make sure that once they’re here, we don’t just kind of throw them to the wolves and abandon them,” Reese said.
The organization also has its own lending library, which allows members to use textbooks they need for their classes.
Diverge, a digital publication created by sorority members, launched in February. In 2017, non-Greek affiliated students began publishing The Vigil, also online.
Diverge focuses on five different issues affecting students on campus, which include mental health, gender and LGBT inclusion, and socioeconomic and ethnic diversity.
The Vigil addresses a variety of issues that student writers said they face on campus, from homophobia to racism.
“Our stance on it is, the more publications the better,” said junior Andy Smithey, editor-in-chief of Diverge. “I think there’s definitely still room to grow in the people on our campus who are talking about issues that The Vigil and Diverge both support. I think having both publications can only enhance our community if it’s done correctly."
“I feel the Vigil is important to Washington and Lee because I feel the campus is in dire need of different voices not usually represented here,” said senior Dannick Kenon, one of The Vigil’s founders.
For W&L, the diversity problem also has geographic roots. The university for many years has concentrated its recruiting efforts at the same high schools.
“It is absolutely true that there’s an assumption that we have a self-fulfilling pipeline to a set of a dozen or even two dozen high schools … and that’s where everybody comes from,” Richmond said. “There’re always going to be schools that have more kids coming from them than others.”
University data confirm that W&L goes back to the same well at 13 high schools, all located in the South. There are 22 W&L students on campus who graduated from Mountain Brook High School near Birmingham, Alabama. Fourteen students also come from both Highland Park High School in Dallas, Texas, and from Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia.
“I was definitely excited because the people who were here from [my] high school were people I looked up to,” said junior Frances Conner, who attended Mountain Brook. “I was worried during the application process that being from Mountain Brook would make it actually harder to get in considering how many people from [my] grade applied.”
Richmond said the admissions office wants to expand its geographic reach by 20 percent each year, focusing more on public schools.
“For example, in Dallas, Texas, we have historically visited sort of consistent schools … and we had for a long time spent a certain number of days there,” she said. “In the last three years, we’ve made the decision that we want to make sure we’re including more Dallas public schools, for example, so we’re spending more time in the area visiting different schools, in addition to the ones we’re already visiting.”
A cornerstone of the strategic plan is a change in direction to need-blind admissions away from need-aware, which will cost the university an estimated $135 million.
Need-blind admissions means a university won’t consider an applicant’s financial need when deciding whether to admit that student. About 100 colleges and universities in the U.S. claim to be need-blind, according to Cappex, an organization that helps students navigate the college search and application process.
W&L currently operates on a need-aware admissions policy, meaning applicants’ financial situations might be a factor in whether they’re admitted to the university.
“When we are making some of our final decisions [on applications], we know what a student’s financial aid need will be,” Richmond said. “And we may make a decision that includes that information.”
For the 2018-19 school year, the financial aid budget was $44.8 million for undergraduates, an increase of $2.6 million over the previous year. That figure includes need-based grants, scholarships and any other support that the university provides for students.
“[Need-blind] makes students feel comfortable about having financial need—that they don’t have any sort of hesitation in applying to a school because they might have financial need,” said James Kaster, director of financial aid. “It’s, in a way, opening up and saying we will admit everyone who’s qualified no matter what.”
The admissions office says it usually only considers financial need for the last 10 percent to 15 percent of the applicant pool.
“The admission process does not take into account the need of students until the very end of the process,” Kaster said. “So, it mostly happens during the waitlist process that … the need may become a factor in whether the student can be admitted.”
When the university implements the need-blind policy, W&L will not consider financial need for any U.S. citizens, dual citizens or permanent residents. The admissions office will still look at need for foreign nationals, a common policy among other need-blind institutions.
By 2021, the university wants to raise $135 million to cover need-blind admissions, said Tres Mullis, executive director for university development. He said the university will look for a “very large lead gift,” likely between $75 million and $100 million, to kick it off.
The funds raised for the need-blind policy will be part of the larger capital campaign that’s scheduled to begin next year. The financial goal of that campaign is projected to hover around $650 million.
W&L's last campaign, called Honor our Past, Build our Future, began in 2008 and ended in 2015. That campaign raised just over $542 million, surpassing the university’s $500 million goal.
“We have already seen that the goal to become need-blind does resonate with most W&L [alumni] as well as parents,” Mullis said. “It really speaks to making W&L accessible for all students and allowing the admissions office to make decisions for one hundred percent of the class without any regard to a family’s financial ability to pay.”
President Will Dudley also advocated for the policy in his inaugural address in 2017.
“To me, the strengths of the school are the students and the teachers, and we want to have the strongest possible collection of students that we can,” he said in an interview. “That means we don’t ever want to have to turn someone away just because their parents can’t afford to contribute enough financially. It’s a hallmark of the strongest schools in the country that they’re able to make admissions decisions based on the quality of the kids and not the finances of the parents.”
W&L is one of few institutions that still operates on a need-aware policy among selective research universities and liberal arts colleges. All Ivy League schools, along with top liberal arts colleges like Davidson College and Amherst College, are need-blind for domestic applicants. Some of those schools are also need-blind for international students.
“I think, apart from lack of diversity, cost is a huge deterrent for a lot of people for why they wouldn’t pick W&L, even if they love it,” said Smithey, the Diverge editor-in-chief. “I think need-blind would definitely encourage those students who feel like this isn’t even a possibility at all … to feel comfortable applying to a place like W&L.”
For the 2019-20 school year, the estimated cost of attendance for W&L undergrads is $73,900. That’s almost $20,000 higher than the median household income in the U.S. in 2017, according to the U.S. census. The cost of attendance includes tuition, room and board, books and fees.
Fraternity and sorority membership fees aren’t included in the tally. The membership fees cover operating expenses and programming for the organization, which can include social events and the cost of maintaining a house on or near campus. About 74 percent of W&L students belong to a Greek organization, according to university estimates.
“I think there’s sort of this perfect storm of W&L being a Greek-heavy campus,” said Reese, the founder of FLIP. “People do want to join [Greek organizations] because so many people join, but then they can’t afford to, so it sort of ostracizes them right off the get-go. They don’t rush because they know they can’t afford it, and then people ask why they’re not rushing, and it just sort of becomes, I think, a lot bigger of an issue or sort of source of insecurity than it needs to be.”
The income gap plays out in another way: Students can make purchases of all sorts of items on campus by using their ID cards to "swipe it home." Leia Barrow, a first-year, said she has to pay her way. She can't ask her parents, like many of her classmates.
W&L guarantees that it will meet full demonstrated financial need for each admitted student. That means the university will provide need-based grants, not loans, to students whose parents can’t afford the full cost of attendance. A student’s demonstrated need is based on a calculation of family income, assets and other circumstances affecting a student’s ability to pay, such as medical care or family responsibilities.
Students must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. Parents' and students' federal tax returns also must be submitted.
W&L’s financial aid office then determines what it believes a student’s family can contribute toward the cost of attendance. If that expected contribution is lower than the cost of attendance, the university will make up the difference through institutional need-based aid, work study and federal grants, if applicable.
Domestic students have to reapply for financial aid each year. Their aid can be increased or decreased depending on their personal situations. International students receive a fixed award each year that increases with the cost of attendance. But they can reapply for additional aid in extreme circumstances.
“We know that our students tend to have other future ambitions,” Richmond said. “And we hear this all the time. Seniors, especially, will say, ‘Well now I can go to graduate school, and I have no loans from undergrad. So, the ability to make choices about my future doesn’t have to be impeded by how much loan [money] I’ve taken out to be an undergrad.’”
But about 30 percent of W&L students will graduate with loan debt, averaging about $18,000, Kaster said. Any number of reasons could prompt students to take out a loan, including unexpected changes in circumstances or a family’s unwillingness to contribute to tuition payments.
Students’ financial aid packages can also change based on the receipt of scholarships obtained outside of the university. If a student receives an outside scholarship, his or her W&L need-based aid package will be reduced by half that amount. Through this policy, the financial aid office says it’s trying to encourage students to apply for outside scholarships while recognizing that they now have extra funds and should need less aid.
“The evaluation of need-based grant is to determine what your family contribution is,” Kaster said. “So, if you are receiving scholarships and things like that, that affects your ability to contribute.”
The W&L Promise guarantees a minimum grant of tuition to any undergraduate student admitted to the university with a family income below $100,000 with typical assets. A student might also be eligible for additional grants to cover room and board.
Since 2009, W&L has also served as one of QuestBridge’s college partners. QuestBridge is a national program that allows high-achieving, low-income students to earn a full scholarship to one of 40 selective colleges and universities. W&L enrolled 39 QuestBridge finalists in the class that entered the university in fall 2018.
Leia Barrow, a first-year QuestBridge scholar, ranked W&L as her second choice behind Emory University. She initially wanted to attend Emory because it’s closer to her family. But she said she’s grateful that she ended up at W&L.
“I liked that my professors [at W&L] would actually call me by my name instead of the last four [digits] of my student number or my social security number,” Barrow said.
Every year, the university also awards Johnson Scholarships to 10 percent of the entering class. The scholarships were created in 2007 through a $100 million gift from W&L alumnus Rupert Johnson. The Johnson covers the full cost of tuition and room and board.
“[The Johnson] was probably among the top factors, maybe even the most decisive factor [in my decision process],” said senior Johnson scholar Ryder Babik, who could’ve gone to Yale or Tufts universities. “Having that financial support made it a very enticing offer. If I hadn’t received the scholarship, I would’ve at least considered other options more.”‹ ›