April 2009 Newsletter
“With the economy forcing budget cuts and layoffs in higher education, colleges and universities might be expected to be cutting financial aid. But no. Students considering a wide range of private schools, as well as those who are already enrolled, can expect to get more aid this year, not less.” (NY Times, 2/28/09)
While this may be true at some schools, admissions offices are now being inundated with requests for financial aid from this year’s applicants who did not initially apply for aid.
To some degree I do believe that while colleges are seeing fewer students who they consider “full-pays,” they are offering some money to others who they think might not be able to attend because they would not be able to afford the full cost. These “partial-pays” are still better than empty seats. This is not that dissimilar to a hotel that will sell a room at the last minute at a discounted rate rather than let it go empty for the night, or a Broadway theatre sending unsold half-price tickets over to TKTS for that day’s performance.
That said, when two students have similar standardized test scores and grade point averages, and one applicant is able to pay for all four years of a college education, and the other needs financial aid to supplement the costs, don’t believe that these two candidates are viewed equally despite the college attesting to need-blind admissions.
What need-blind admissions actually means is that a type of firewall exists between admissions and the financial aid office through which information does not flow. Yet, in the real world of college admissions, there are other ways that a need-blind college can figure out if the applicant will need aid. On every application there are questions that the student must answer that reveals the family’s economic circumstances. When both parents are ivy league graduates, and one is a partner in a white-shoe law firm, while the other is a partner in a top consulting firm, the sibling is currently attending a prestigious private university, and the high school is located in an affluent zip code, it is not difficult to conclude that if admitted, this applicant will be a “full-pay.” Add to this mix, a student who writes about his summer community service work in Guatemala that cost his family eight thousand dollars, it becomes even more obvious that the family can afford the tuition, room and board at the college to which he/she applied.
Despite the good intention of the admissions and financial aid officers, there is a limit to the total amount of aid that can be awarded. At some colleges that adhere to a need-aware policy, all applications requiring financial aid are put into one pile, and once it is determined how much aid can be distributed, admissions counselors are then directed to accept only a specific percentage of these applications. This results in applicants who are requesting financial aid having to go through two different admissions reviews, one competing with all applicants, and a second competing with applicants requesting financial aid.
So the question remains, if an applicant needs aid, then should that student declare that on the application? In this case, the applicant doesn’t have much of a choice. If the financial need box is unchecked, and the applicant is ultimately admitted, but then won’t be able to attend the college because of the sticker price, then the acceptance is only a trophy. However, too many times I talk with parents who can afford the costs, but want to see if their child will qualify for aid, and so the student checks the box. In most instances, this could be a huge mistake.
“While the Commonfund Benchmarks Study, which collects data from 628 educational institutions across the country, found that only minimal losses were sustained for fiscal year 2008, the real problem lies ahead…. Endowments at these schools have tumbled an astounding estimated 22.5 percent in the first half of FY 2009, and there is no indication that this trend will come to a halt in the near future. (Business Week, 1/26/09) When Tufts, Brandeis, Harvard, and Yeshiva University, sees the value of its endowment and the assets of its donors plunge as a result of losses attributed to Bernie Madoff, I have to think that a student who can pay his own way will have a greater advantage in the admissions process.
The gamesmanship involved in the college admissions process is going to continue, and of course I wish that colleges would be more truthful when it comes to need-blind admissions. But as long as students and parents are aware of the pitfalls in declaring or not declaring need, then just maybe when the decision letters are received next week, students will have the option of attending a college that they can afford based on the merit and need-based aid that they are offered.
“To Keep Students, Colleges Cut Anything but Aid” Retreived February 28, 2009, from The New York Times Website: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/28/education/28college.html
Burnsed, Brian, “College Endowments Hit the Skids” Retreived February 28, 2009 from Business Week Website: http://www.businessweek.com/bschools/blogs/mba_admissions/archives/2009/01/college_endowme.html