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The philosophy that scholarship resources should be allocated on the basis of need has been part of the MIT culture from the beginning.
In 1867, two years after classes began, the Committee on Free Scholarships said it intended "to offer the honor of the scholarship as a prize to the best scholars." However, the committee stressed that it also intended "to make it a point of honor with those who obtain but do not need it to transfer the nomination to the best scholar to whom the free tuition shall be deemed a positive benefit."
This informal arrangement, relying on the good will of certain scholarship recipients, eventually gave birth to a policy specifically fashioned to achieve that goal, according to the MIT legal brief filed in Federal District Court in Philadelphia last week.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had always sought to admit the most qualified students without regard to their resources insofar as MIT's limited charitable resources would permit.
Following World War II, the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944-the "GI Bill," under which the federal government guaranteed financial assistance to any college-bound veteran-prompted widespread recognition of the benefits that society reaps from increasing the educational level of its members. The GI Bill also created a heightened awareness of the disparities in the educational opportunities afforded to different segments of society.
Throughout most of the history of higher education in the United States, financial barriers placed a college education beyond the reach of many able students who were not fortunate enough to be born into affluent families.
Some 35 years ago, MIT officially adopted a "need-blind" admissions system, which eliminated from the admissions process any consideration of an applicant's ability to pay. MIT meets the full financial need of every single admitted student and does not award financial aid beyond a student's demonstrated need.
In the 1990-91 academic year, 57 percent of MIT's admitted class needed and received financial aid from MIT. Thirty years ago, in 1960, the figure was about 43 percent. The change has required ever-increasing support from MIT's endowment and from contributions by its alumni and benefactors, particularly as federal aid has waned.
In 1990, for example, MIT provided in excess of $23 million in private financial aid to its undergraduate students. MIT provides approximately seven dollars of private scholarship aid to its undergraduate students for each dollar of scholarship aid provided by the federal government.
Merit is evaluated by the Admissions Office without regard to financial need; need is evaluated by the Financial Aid Office without regard to merit. Even the mere fact that a student has applied for financial aid is kept confidential and is unknown by the Admissions Office.
The need-blind policy breathed life into the principle that an MIT education should be accessible to any applicant who meets the rigorous academic standards at MIT, and that wealthy students should not displace those of equal talent but lesser means.
The policy has had a substantial impact on the composition of MIT classes. While only 12 percent of MIT's freshmen were in the lowest national quarter of family income in 1971, by 1991 this number had increased by half to 18 percent.
Two decades ago, little more than three percent of MIT's undergraduate population were from American minority groups. This number has increased by a factor of twelve, so that today more than 38 percent of MIT's undergraduate population is comprised of American minorities.
The removal of financial barriers is credited with having played a substantial role in all these changes.
A version of this article appeared in the May 6, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 36, Number 29).