How Are Admissions Decisions Made at George Washington?

Laurie Koehler, senior associate provost for enrollment management, discusses university admissions practices.

October 21, 2013

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Laurie Koehler became senior associate provost for enrollment management at the George Washington University in July 2013. As the manager of undergraduate and graduate enrollment and financial aid, Ms. Koehler has many tasks on her agenda, including making the admissions process as transparent as possible for prospective students.

Recent reports have raised questions about GW admissions practices and how the Office of Admissions factors in a student’s financial aid need when reviewing applications. Ms. Koehler sat down with GW Today to discuss her new role and to clarify admissions practices and policies.

Q: What have been your main priorities in your new role as senior associate provost for enrollment management at GW? What are some of the admissions practices that have changed since July?

A: The top priority is to make sure we enroll another great class of diverse students who are passionate about George Washington University. I’ve been working hard on engaging the campus community more fully in the work of undergraduate admissions and trying to increase the transparency of admissions processes and policies.

The application process itself has changed in that GW has become a Common Application exclusive institution.  We have accepted the Common Application for a number of years, but we also used to have a separate GW application, which made the process somewhat confusing for students and also cumbersome for school officials and recommenders. We think that by only accepting the Common Application, this will really streamline the process for prospective students.

We’ve also been taking a close look at our campus visit experience. That will involve really looking broadly at every component—from the university website, to signage in Foggy Bottom, to our facilities, to the content of our information sessions and tours.  

Q: How do you and your team craft an incoming class of GW students? What factors go into the admissions decision-making process?

A: The admissions office works very hard to cast a net widely to ensure that we have a strong and diverse applicant pool of students. When we review applications, we conduct what is referred to as holistic admissions. We’re doing a review of lots of different factors before making admissions decisions, which includes looking at the academic performance and curricular selections of applicants—taking into account their essays, their recommendations, their test scores, their level of involvement in their schools and communities and what they might bring to GW as community members. We are incredibly fortunate at GW to have an applicant pool of highly qualified students who want to come here.

Q: Recently, there seems to be some confusion regarding how GW factors a student’s financial aid need into the admissions process and whether this policy has changed from previous years.

A: The admissions practices at GW have not changed with regard to how financial aid requests are factored in. What has changed is the new leadership in enrollment management. What we are trying to do is to increase the transparency of the admissions process. 

Q: Can you clarify the definitions of “need aware” admissions and “need blind” admissions?  How would GW categorize its admissions process?

A: Our admissions committee evaluates candidates without factoring in financial need. They make initial decisions based solely upon the merits of the application. Thus, our admissions process starts with each application being read by staff members who do not know any financial information about the applicants. This is often referred to as a “need blind read.”  

We then look at a variety of institutional priorities and values to help us round out the next incoming class of students.

It’s important to note that we must balance the financial needs of our new class with the university's aid budget.  This all happens in advance of admission notification of students.

I would characterize this process as “need aware.” Some admissions professionals use the phrase “read need blind” to describe a process like ours where the admissions committees do not have access to the amount of need of an applicant.  I believe using the phrase “need aware” better represents the totality of our practices than the phrase “need blind.” 

Q: Did the admissions office mislead prospective students?

A: Since my arrival in July, I have been focused on increasing the transparency of the admissions process. As I have said, using the phrase “need aware” best represents the totality of our practices. It is our goal to make sure that all of our admissions practices and policies, including how we factor need into the final admissions decisions, are communicated clearly to prospective students and parents. I apologize that our communications did not fully meet that standard.

Q: What have you done since you arrived to change how you describe admissions practices?

A: When I arrived, I began a review of the five offices under my purview, including undergraduate admissions. As I asked more questions and learned more about our internal processes, it became apparent that we were not consistently telling the full story about the role of financial need in our admissions process. We undertook a review of our communications materials to determine if there were references to being need blind and found none. Regrettably, we missed a reference on our website. I have discussed with admissions officers our need aware practice and how to communicate it more clearly. There is more work to be done to ensure everyone that speaks to prospective parents and students understands and can clearly articulate our need aware practice.

Q: What are the advantages of a “need aware” admissions process?

A: By being need aware, GW is able to provide more attractive aid packages for those students with financial need while staying within its aid budget allotment. If we admitted without regard to need, we would still have a limited aid budget, and we would have to reduce the amount of awards to some or all students. The practice of being need aware allows us to meet as much need of as many students as we can.  More than 60 percent of our students receive grants from GW.  We, of course, wish we had more resources for financial aid, which is why the university launched the Power and Promise initiative to increase philanthropic giving to student aid.

Q: Are there comparable universities that also utilize a “need aware” admissions process?

A: Yes. Hundreds of schools use a “need aware” admissions process such as Wesleyan University, Washington University in St. Louis, Northeastern University and Tufts University.