Earlier this semester, the Phoenix published the first part of a series on socioeconomic diversity and economic outcomes at Sarah Lawrence. In our last edition, we published a piece that took a critical look at a popular interactive piece published by the UpShot, which featured socioeconomic diversity findings about schools all over the country. The numbers were based on a study conducted at UC Berkeley. A closer look at SLC’s ranking produced a few notable takeaways: first, that for all intents and purposes, SLC ranks well for economic diversity—that is, among elite colleges. The trouble comes when we look at the post-grad numbers. The Berkeley study paints a grim tale for SLC grads, citing alarmingly low rates of socioeconomic mobility. At age 34, SLC students had among the lowest median individual incomes with a 3.4 percent mobility rate. In fact, the school comes in dead last in the overall mobility index. That’s a problem.
We've given you the numbers. They’re alarming. It begs the question that SLC students ask perhaps far too often: what is the administration doing about this? The Phoenix sat down with Deans Kevin McKenna and Danny Trujillo to find out.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Why doesn’t the school have need-blind admissions?
Dean Kevin McKenna (KM): If there’s a short answer, it’s because we have to be careful about not exceeding the financial aid budget—and that’s true of any school that has to consider finances in any capacity. We consider it in the very last stage of the admissions process.
What is the admissions process like, with regards to knowledge of the student’s financial situation?
KM: If you’re going to have the limitation be need-blind, the admission staff should look only at the merits of the student. That’s why the counselors conduct a first and second read without access to any financial information. In that sense, though we are not need blind, we try to be as sensitive as possible and do as close to a need blind process as we can—meaning that it is only in the final step of the admission process that finances are considered at all.
We do have to pull down tentative admits for two reasons: the first is that we would risk being seriously overenrolled. One of the criteria for pulling down a tentative is if the student is already borderline in the lower academic standing. The other reason is ethical. We want to minimize the number of “empty admits.” We don’t feel it’s ethical to release decisions that students can’t afford to come here. People make their decisions based on where they actually can afford. Our philosophy is affordability for every student who is admitted.
Yet the school can’t guarantee full demonstrated need to admitted students?
KM: I would love for SLC to meet full demonstrated need, and most students do have it met. It’s a tricky concept in and of itself, because the formula to calculate demonstrated need was developed in the mid-1990s or so. The last major revision was in the mid-2000s, pre-2008. Anyone who applies for financial aid will agree that the calculated demonstrated need and the actual felt need are often two different things. Sometimes, we have to go above and beyond for students who actually need more than the calculation might suggest. That does mean that for some people, we’re a little bit under what the “felt need” calculation suggests. It’s a limitation of our resources. We do our best to balance it.
If you have a pool of students based on merits, is there a point when the council sits down to consider specific diversity and socioeconomic diversity needs?
KM: It starts with the recruitment process. Over the last three years, we’ve made a real effort to include in places we haven’t recruited in before. By socioeconomic diversity, I don’t mean that we’re just attracting students in the extremes. There’s a lot of middle, lower, and upper-middle. We’ve always had a strong applicant pool in New York and Los Angeles. But there’s a lot of good cities in between, and we’ve really ramped up the number of high schools we visit and the number of traveling counselors.
When it comes to decision-making, I think all of the admissions counselors are aware that diversity is important. In committee, they say things like, “this is a different perspective, they would bring an underrepresented voice to campus.” It’s not just about finances—they’re looking at parent occupations, the city where they’re from, the high school that they’re coming from.
When it comes to the final decision, we really bring the “slated-to-be-admitted” pool into different cells. It’s very much a matrix—it’s academic profile vs. estimated family contribution. We try to make sure that is as balanced as possible.
Wealth and money is the root of many tensions on campus. There is a serious resentment for people who seem to come from high and privileged economic backgrounds, who take little effort to understand the less privileged people that they go to school with. Is that something the administration thinks about and attempts to reconcile with?
Dean Danny Trujillo (DT): It is a perception that comes, in part, indirectly through SLC’s history. It’s true that 40, 50 years ago, this was a college for the wealthy. That’s changing. In the past ten years, we’ve seen dramatic changes in the socioeconomic diversity. That’s a small window if you look at just how much has changed. Financial aid has expanded considerably.
But there’s still this perception that it’s an elite college—not in the way we think of ourselves as elite from an educational standpoint, but elite from a financial standpoint. Students often times, who struggle, are an invisible population because there’s no way to optically identify a student who comes from any kind of background. To go to college in this era is a hardship for families. There’s money involved. Everybody feels the pinch. Some feel it more than others, and that creates a lot of anxiety. They struggle about whether they should stay at Sarah Lawrence or not—not because they don’t love it here, but because they can see what a financial weight it is on their families. I think that creates the stress, and it taps into the underlying stress, in that it’s great to be here, but there’s a lot of riding on this.
*The following question references data cited in Part 1 of the SLC Economic Profile
Students that come from the bottom 40 percent have a very, very difficult time post-graduate to come into the top 40 percent post-graduate. How aware is the school of these numbers and what resources or efforts are available to assist student postgraduate? Or is the problem based off the studies that people pursue at this school?
DT: Sarah Lawrence is right in the median as far the basic life-time earnings, earnings across different points in a lifespan. The problem with studies that center around post-graduate upward mobility is that they often focus on 34 as an age of measuring success. For liberal arts institutions, that’s problematic, because the nature of the degree is that it has low returns in the short term.
But if we talk about over the lifespan, consider two things when comparing liberal arts to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). 1.) Professional satisfaction—if you look at students around career satisfaction, it’s the highest-earning professions that the satisfaction is lower particularly as age increases. 2.) The economic peak for liberal arts grads statistically happens after 35, because the nature of the degree usually results in a career trajectory full of dynamic experiences. You’re changing, shifting, you’re adjusting to social and political changes in this world. These individuals change in a changing world so they don’t experience the economic or personal satisfactory benefits until they’re older.
It’s difficult to tell a student that you’ll be fine, in 25 years.
DT: That’s part of the pathway. If I hadn’t gone the path that I did, I wouldn’t be here.
Graduation is coming up. People feel the stress of how difficult it is to actually do what you want—knowing these things, that the odds might be stacked up against them. Those first years after graduation—those initial years of struggle—what role can the school play to help out?
DT: In the past 2 years, we’ve restructured our staffing of Career Services to address this very issue. There’s a great deal of sharing of information and opportunities, and a staff that works specifically with alumni. One part of our re-organization was to create a relationship with employers. We now have someone here to really actively sell the appreciation of a Sarah Lawrence education all across the country. Our alumni work very closely with advancement and employers and internships to create opportunities for our students. Recent graduates are encouraged to contact Career Services for development needs.
In short: socioeconomic diversity read the fine print. There’s misleading frames when it comes to collegiate reviews, especially when it comes to liberal arts schools, where there is a longer-term payoff. As the deans suggested, the way to combat your fears is to contact Career Services. They are only a door knock, phone call, or email away.
Kate Bakhtiyarova ‘19