Making the Right Cuts

McNutt Hall: Need-Blind No More for International Students

McNutt Hall: Need-Blind No More for International Students

President Hanlon & co. have probably learned to not expect raucous applause when they hand down a new policy. Social life changes earn a mixed response at best, and everything outside that realm tends to escape students’ attention entirely. But in the wake of its decision to end need-blind admissions for international applicants, Parkhurst has clearly found itself without a single friend, facing a strengthening wave of ill will and activism.

The new policy was first publicized just over one month ago, after the Admissions Office quietly circulated a letter to notify its volunteers and applicant interviewers. The backlash began immediately, and has hardened with the passing time. Beyond the usual crop of concerned students sounding off (in this publication and others), a group of international students and their sympathetic peers has gotten nearly 1,500 signatures worth of traction for a petition calling for the reversal of the policy.

In students’ minds, it’s obvious that the personal dimension sets this change apart from other tweaks that McNutt often makes to its admissions and aid policies. The image of Dartmouth without our buddies from abroad gives most of us reason enough to call the shift into question. But one can just as easily imagine steely-eyed administrators within the walls of McNutt writing off students’ reaction as so much emotional hand-wringing. After all, isn’t it their charge to put aside this and that concern about short-term diversity, and put Dartmouth’s financial integrity above all. I hope you’re thinking “not quite”, but for the sake of argument, let’s take them up on that premise.


Dartmouth’s budget landscape: bloated all the way down

Take a close look at the text of the petition: the authors acknowledge that “the total financial aid budget will not decrease,” because the funds freed up from aid to foreign applicants will be transferred to domestic aid seekers. Obviously this is a worthy goal, and if international and domestic student aid existed together in a vacuum, there’d be grounds for a conversation about which to prioritize. But in reality, our administrators made their decision to slash international aid against the backdrop of budget littered with achingly obvious opportunities for savings.

For the 2014-2015 academic year, the College reported that about 80% of international students received financial aid, with an average award of about $43,100 per student. Given our body of about 350 international students, this amounts to approximately $12 million appropriated for aid awards to our friends from abroad each year. During a conversation with the creators of the petition, President Hanlon suggested that the administration’s broad goal is to bring the percentage of internationals receiving aid down closer to the domestic percentage, 45%. This would free up about $5.3 million to be transferred to domestic students each year.

That’s certainly not a small figure, but it doesn’t take much snooping to discover a much lower-hanging $5 million at place like Dartmouth. There’s one major domain that could and should have faced the chopping block well before international aid was touched: Non-faculty staff compensation.

This is the big one. It’s widely known that ballooning administrative staffs have driven costs up at colleges across the country. Last April, New York Times contributing columnist Paul Campos (who is also a professor at the University of Colorado) caused a splash with an op-ed that pinned the blame for rising tuition and stagnating aid on administrative hiring, dismissing the alternative explanations for cost spikes.

But the problem is particularly dire here at Dartmouth, even compared to our fellow Ivies. As of the 2013 report on the College from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Dartmouth’s compensation-to-number of paid staff ratio was the highest in the Ivy League at about $104,000 total compensation per employee, including faculty. As Joe Asch pointed out in a series on Dartblog, our pay packages for professors are average at best, meaning the culprits for our pay discrepancy are the non-teaching administrators in our broad bureaucracy.

It may seem impossible to slow this type of creeping growth, but we’ve mustered the strength before. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, newcomer President Jim Yong Kim was able to push through administrative cuts that amounted to about 10% of the College’s yearly operating budget.

Of course, the opposition remained strong and the laid-off staff were rehired or replaced within the coming years as the economy recovered. But if dire circumstances can marshal a 10% cut, surely the groundswell of support for robust aid to internationals should warrant administrative cuts that could free up the $5 million they’re seeking. That sum is crucial to the hundreds of foreign applicants who might soon be passed over for their inability to pay, but could amount to a very manageable reduction in staff size if Parkhurst trimmed down in the right places. The residential advising staff alone arguably contains a hefty chunk of the fifty or so superfluous staffers we’d need to cut to maintain international aid at its current level.

Managing financial aid and every other major cost will never cease to cause dilemmas. But the field of cost-saving solutions is broad and deep. So as we push back against the slash to international aid, we should start with indignation but finish by pointing Parkhurst in the direction of comparable cuts that that won’t cut so deep into Dartmouth’s integrity.