Need-blind admissions explained

Five questions with Dean of Enrollment Bill Leahy.

Karen Stewart
February 8, 2022

The Admissions team gathers in Dean of Enrollment Bill Leahy's office at Bissell House.

Bill Leahy has made a career of getting to know people. An admissions professional for three decades, he arrived at Exeter in 2016 after serving as director of admission at Phillips Academy; dean of admission at The Hotchkiss School; director of finanacial aid at St. Paul’s School; global director of enrollment and director of admissions at Avenues: The World School; and as assistant director of admission at Boston University.

We sat down with Leahy in December, one month after the formal adoption of a need-blind policy and on the cusp of his sixth season working with his colleagues in the Exeter Admissions Office to select the next entering class of Exonians.

You’ve been a champion for need-blind admissions  since you arrived at Exeter. How do you feel now that it is a reality?  
It feels great to be able to fulfill our charge and honor the founding vision of Elizabeth and John Phillips, who called on this school to educate youth from every quarter. Over our school’s history, our definition of youth from every quarter has appropriately evolved and will continue to evolve — that is the power of a timeless mission. Today, with the decision to become need-blind, we are positioned to honor our founders and this school even more by ensuring that family income never becomes a barrier of access to an Exeter education. 
Private schools in general have seen declining enrollment. Has the admissions process changed during your time here?
We have seen unprecedented growth in applications to Exeter from around the world in recent years. Each year, we read thousands of applications seeking those students with the most to give and the most to gain by attending Exeter. The admissions committee devotes weeks of careful evaluation and deliberation on every application to Exeter. We work late into the night revisiting files and discussing, sometimes debating, how to narrow the long list of incredibly talented applicants down to just the small number who will ultimately be offered admission.
You and your team are entering your first season with this new policy in place. From a very pragmatic standpoint, what will change for you this winter? 
What being need-blind means is that the narrowing down of the final list of admitted students is based solely on the assessment of the applicant and has nothing to do with family financial resources. So many qualified students apply each year and we have removed another hurdle. One’s ability to afford Exeter is not on the table for discussion.
You’ve worked in secondary school admissions for over 30 years. Does Exeter feel different from other schools?
I’ve learned firsthand what a special community Exeter is — in part because of its transformational teaching pedagogy and remarkable resources, but more because of the students and adults who represent the very best of this residential education experience. They are all part of a mission to explore and discover their authentic selves, to collaborate and to consider different perspectives on every topic.
This new need-blind policy has deeper meaning beyond our campus community, doesn’t it?
The commitment to access is a central tenet of Exeter’s identity. When the need-blind announcement was made, I had a chance to travel to New York City for some admission events and on more than one occasion, the audience applauded when we referenced the recent announcement. There are many issues of educational inequity that confront our applicants, and this historic commitment of removing financial barriers to an Exeter education once and for all says so much about our institutional values.
Editor's note: This feature first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.