September 16, 2008
To: Professors Garvis and Luecke, co-chairs
Professors Gregory and LaRiviere
Associate Dean of Students Futrell
Sr. Assistant Director of Admissions Hutchinson
Associate Provost Strong Executive
Director of Alumni Affairs Dudley
From: Ken Ruscio, President
Re: Socioeconomic Diversity in The Undergraduate Student Body: Meeting the Affordability Challenge
In 2001, the University’s Board of Trustees endorsed a plan to diversify the student body. The first phase of the plan emphasized increasing the number of students from underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities. The second phase focused on socioeconomic diversity. Considerable progress was made and our efforts will continue on our “Phase I” diversity goals. We have also made progress on the second phase, especially with the creation of the Johnson Scholar program, but it is a propitious time to take stock of our current situation and our future plans. The charge to this committee is to review our goals and objectives for achieving socioeconomic diversity in our student body, and to recommend to the President strategies for the University to recruit, support, and retain students from low and middle-income families.
As the cost of higher education has escalated, many highly qualified students from low and middle-income families may not consider W & L a viable educational option. The problematic consequences are two-fold. First, we would be abdicating our longstanding responsibility to ensure that students with excellent academic and personal characteristics have the opportunity to attend regardless of their financial circumstances. Second, if our mission is to prepare students for lives of consequence in a complex, diverse and pluralistic world, our graduates will be ill- prepared if the educational environment includes only those from similar backgrounds and experiences.
Socioeconomic diversity in private colleges is not easy to achieve in the absence of carefully designed strategies and dedicated resources. For students from low and middle-income families and for first-generation college students, the barrier to attending a college like Washington and Lee is not simply cost but also the complexity of the admissions and financial aid processes and the perception that they cannot afford to attend a University with such a high “sticker price.”* The availability of financial aid is therefore a necessary but not sufficient condition for diversifying the student body. Making qualified students better aware of Washington and Lee, bringing them into the admissions pool, and guiding them through the application process are additional steps we should consider.
With increasing socioeconomic diversity, we may need to provide additional support to students to help them understand the academic environment and adjust to the campus culture. In the end, we need to ensure that the defining academic and co-curricular features of the Washington and Lee experience are not beyond the reach of any student during his or her time on campus.
I therefore ask the committee to address two related sets of questions.
The committee should have access to historical and current data on the economic backgrounds of the student body, though I note that data on individuals are necessarily confidential. The committee should also review national reports, such as the College Board analysis and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation study, which will enable us to understand broad trends and demographic patterns. I also encourage the committee to consult with individuals on campus, on the faculty and in the administration, who by virtue of their experience or position have dealt with these questions and can bring a wealth of knowledge to the discussions. I would further encourage the committee to meet with students and obtain their insights, especially with respect to the second set of questions posed to the committee.
Finally, recommendations that require additional resources or personnel should be made with a practical awareness of constrained budgets. We undoubtedly will need to do more, but doing more in this area will mean doing less in others. I am not asking the committee to make those trade-offs, but I am asking that it offer recommendations with a sense of prudence and practicality.
The report should be submitted to the President by February 15, 2009. I will report the findings and recommendations to the University community and the Board of Trustees.
* I have chosen not to define low and middle income in precise dollar figures, and I would encourage the committee to interpret those categories broadly. With the four-year total cost of a Washington and Lee education approaching $200,000 and the median annual family income in the United States short of $50,000, the affordability challenge exists for a broad class of prospective students.