Farewell, Olde Reed

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reed college seal.jpgAt the beginning of my senior year in high school, I put together a list of colleges to which I wanted to apply. I'd always assumed I'd go to college far away, but once I actually had to start applying, I surprised myself by wanting to stick close to home. My list, if I remember correctly, was comprised of University of Oregon Honor's College; Stanford; Reed; Lewis & Clark; and The Evergreen State College. In the fall, before the early decision deadlines, my mom and I went to Portland to visit Lewis & Clark and Reed.

And on that day I fell in love. I spent about 10 minutes on Reed campus before I knew that was where I wanted to go. I applied early decision and was accepted in January. I withdrew my other applications. My decision was made.

That was in 1996-1997. If I am remembering correctly, the total estimated tab for a year at Reed (including tuition and fees and room and board) was about $30,000. In what I can only consider an irony, $30,000 was almost exactly the same amount as my family's total annual income, as per the endless financial aid forms I filled out.

But it was OK. Because, back then, Reed had a policy by which, if they accepted you, they offered some sort of financial aid to cover your estimated need (given, of course, that estimated need is calculated in a very different way by an admissions counselor than by an actual family with other bills to pay). With a family at home living under the poverty line, my estimated need was complete, and my acceptance came with an offer of complete financial aid. They covered everything--tuition, fees, room, board, and even some living expenses. There was a letter along with my acceptance letter outlining the funding I was being offered. Part of it (I think about $4,000 that first year) was a federally guaranteed Stafford Loan, and part was a Pell Grant, but most of it was just a big fat grant from the college itself. A new version of that same letter cam every semester I was at Reed, and while the loan amounts did increase (I left with a total of about $30,000 in loans), I never had to make a hard decision, or scrounge for tuition.

Things have changed. As per an article in the yesterday's New York Times, more than 100 students otherwise deemed good candidates were dropped from Reed's accepted freshman class for next year, due to financial need. The total cost of going to Reed is now estimated at about $50,000 a year, and students are not only not being offered all the help they would need to pay that amount, some of them are simply not being accepted if they can't pay it.

Reed has for now cast aside its hopes of accepting students based purely on merit, without regard to wealth, and still meeting their financial need. Only the nation's richest colleges do that. What's more, when Reed turned to its waiting list this year, it tapped only students who could pay their way.

To say I am disappointed would, I think, be an understatement. I understand that the recession is taking its toll, and that the money has to come from somewhere. I'm skeptical that Reed couldn't find a better way to come up with some of it (the article mentions that plans to build a new performing arts center on campus are moving forward), but I do get that cuts have to be made. The thing that infuriates me is not that Reed can't offer aid-as-needed to all accepted students, like they could when I went there. It's that the response to this, rather than accepting those students anyway, offering them the aid that is available, and letting them decide how to proceed, is not accepting them at all.

That is simple discrimination. Leaving 100 plus students off the acceptance list (and everyone off the waiting list) because of their income is, to my mind, exactly the same as leaving them off due to their race, gender, or religion. While it is not Reed's responsibility to offer aid to everyone (and aid can be reasonably based on merit as well as need), how can it not be the college's responsibility to offer admission with a blind eye to money? How can it possibly be justified to have "ability to pay for it, based on our analysis" be an admissions criteria?

It is true that if I hadn't been offered the aid package I was at Reed, I wouldn't have gone there. It simply wouldn't have been possible without taking out huge unsubsidized loans, and I wouldn't have been willing to do that. But shouldn't it have been my choice? Accepting me and not offering me aid would have been harsh, but reasonable. Not accepting me based on my perceived ability to pay, though? That's just wrong.

I loved, and still love, Reed. I got the best education I can imagine there. It was absolutely worth the loans I'm going to be re-paying until I'm 40, worth the four years of too many books and too little sleep, worth the class-based chip it wore into my shoulder, worth the guilt that comes with being over-educated in an under-educated family. I've spent quite a bit of breathe in the last few years defending Reed from the critics who find it both too pompous and too permissive. I believe in the way Reed has historically conducted itself, at least by and large. But this isn't the first time since I graduated that I have been massively disappointed in my alma mater. Just a couple of years post-graduation, I wrote an incensed letter to the Board of Directors about Reed's shoddy treatment of their non-faculty employees. (The letter, by the way, was met with an extremely snarky and disrespectful reply from one board member, against whom I hold a grudge to this day.) Looking at the students chosen to profile in the most recent Reed magazine, I'm left wondering what, exactly, they are trying to become (Why is everyone so normal looking? Where are the freaks?). And now this. Not just a choice to put buildings and keeping the endowment up ahead of students, but an actual policy of exclusion of low-income attendees. People like me. People like some of the best friends (and most dedicated students) I knew while I was there. If they are looking for a fast way to destroy the good in what Reed has historically been, this just might do it.

3 Comments

so here's my issue: i liked that reed only accepted people they could support, but now that really good idea has gone bad. I oscillate between thinking that they should accept people even if they can't pay (under the idea that those people could just take a ridiculous amount of loans out if they wanted), and sticking with the idea of only accepting people you can support.

I find this very interesting. I live right up the hill from Reed, and my 6 year old has it in her head she will be going there some day. This won't even be a consideration for our family with Reed's new policies. I am disappointed with Reed too.

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