New York University Backs Off Its Mission to Become More Diverse

A year ago it was a college admissions officer’s dream: stacks of applications from low-income students with solid test scores, terrific grades, and rigorous academic preparation.

But today it seems the rules may be changing. The nation’s recession appears to have finally eroded the enrollment policies of one of America’s great educational institutions.

An item in last week’s New York Post surprised the academic world in its report that New York University, one of the nation’s most prestigious and selective universities, has been calling accepted students who qualified for financial aid with the evident purpose of discouraging them from matriculating at NYU this coming fall.

NYU made telephone calls to more than 1,800 of the 7,300 students who the university had accepted for admission. Students who were called tended to be those with parents who had not gone to college and students whose needs were not fully met by the financial aid packages that the university was offering. The calls were designed to get these students to think hard before accepting NYU’s offer of admission because they were likely to assume large debt if they chose to enroll. About 75 percent of all students at NYU receive financial aid and a large amount of this aid is in the form of student loans.

NYU has a relatively small endowment per student compared to many of America’s leading research institutions. The university is subject to greater financial pressures than many of its peer institutions. The telephone calls are evidently intended to make space at the university for more affluent and full tuition paying students.

Blacks make up only 4 percent of the 21,000 undergraduate students at NYU. This is much lower than such places as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, where the black percentage of total enrollments tends to be more than double that at New York University.

Undoubtedly, many of the black students who had been accepted at New York University were among those who received telephone calls.

University officials claim that they were not trying to dissuade low-income students who qualified for financial aid from coming to NYU. Rather they were simply making efforts to make sure families knew about the financial situation that they would be facing over the next four years. We are not sure this is a candid statement of purpose.

In the national picture, NYU’s actions are important. A highly prestigious institution such as NYU legitimizes efforts by other colleges and universities to back off from need-blind admissions and efforts to become more diverse. It is likely that other selective educational institutions will now join NYU in seeking out more affluent students who can pay full fare. These actions are likely to reverse decades-long efforts to increase the socioeconomic diversity of the student bodies at our nation’s highest-ranked universities. And if more affluent students are given an advantage in admissions at these schools, the percentage of blacks in the student bodies at these institutions is also likely to decrease.