Another Admissions Advantage for the Affluent: Just Pay Full Price
We’ve learned a lot this week about some of the advantages that rich people have in the college admissions process.
A small number of people in the 1 percent have always been able to buy a building for a campus, and with it a spot for their child. And now we know that a few others in the lower 1 percent might be tempted to break a law or two with a well-placed bribe to a coach or a test proctor.
But there is another admissions edge at many prestigious private colleges and universities that isn’t readily apparent, and it’s open even to those who are merely upper middle class. You may tilt the scales in your favor if you can pay four years of tuition, room and board — up to $300,000 or so — without needing financial aid.
Schools don’t talk about this much. It’s not a great look, at least at first glance, and broadcasting it runs the risk of scaring lower-income applicants away from applying.
Still, savvy guidance counselors and private consultants know all about this advantage. And it’s available at most private schools across the country, including selective institutions like American University, Boston University, Carleton, Case Western, Colgate, Colorado College, George Washington, Macalaster, Mount Holyoke, Northeastern, Oberlin, Pitzer, Reed, Skidmore, Smith, Tufts, Wesleyan and Washington University.
What do these schools — and so many others — have in common? They all practice some version of “need-aware” or “need-sensitive” admissions.
(You may have heard of need-blind admissions, in which schools admit you regardless of whether you’re applying for aid. Many of the schools with the biggest endowments do this, and will meet whatever financial need you demonstrate with plenty of scholarship money. Others may tell you to take out a pile of loans.)
Need-aware schools don’t have unlimited aid budgets and generally don’t want to overload families with debt. So they sometimes consider financial need when deciding whether to admit a student — even though they will often meet the full need of every admitted student. It’s like a twisted, real-world SAT logic problem: You can get help if you’re admitted, but you might not be admitted if you need help.
Any notion that richer families might have an edge makes administrators squirm. Paul Thiboutot, Carleton’s vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid, told an in-house publication that he cried when the school went from need-blind to need-aware in 1993, though he came to believe it was the right decision.
Plenty of schools don’t mention their need-aware status anywhere on their websites, even though this is one of the first questions many families would ask. You can sometimes find articles about need-aware admissions in alumni magazines and campus newspapers, however, if you search with the question “Is X College need-blind?”
One notable exception is Oberlin, where a seven-year-old blog post by an admissions employee named Elizabeth Myers Houston offers a rare glimpse into the world of need awareness.
“We do accept some students on the edge of admissibility because they can contribute to the costs of an Oberlin education,” she wrote. “On the other hand, we invariably find ourselves wait-listing or denying some students each year who are otherwise well qualified and appealing, due to a high level of financial need.”
And then, a wee bit of deserved shade cast on Oberlin’s silent peers: “Most schools do this, although, like those of us at Oberlin, most college reps will avoid talking about it like the plague. But we know. Savvy high school guidance counselors know as well, and sometimes they’ll even bring it up when talking to us about their students. In the spirit of fairness and equal distribution of information, I wanted to make sure that you know, too.”
Ms. Houston was not fired for her candor. In fact, she is now Oberlin’s associate director of admissions. I hoped to get her on the phone to do even more truth-telling, but she had time only for email this week.
“It’s hard to be on an admissions committee and have to make decisions based on financial need,” said Ms. Houston, who said she was a Pell Grant recipient who was able to attend Oberlin only because of a generous financial aid package. “When I would be in a committee that was deciding not to admit an otherwise well-qualified applicant due to financial need, I would find myself thinking, ‘That could have been me.’”
Ms. Houston said she had been able to make peace with it, in part because keeping careful tabs on the budget allows Oberlin to be one of the schools that meets the full financial need of everyone it admits.
So, for how many applicants each year does being able to pay full freight make a difference in the admissions odds? And how much of a difference does it make? If only we knew. Not every school keeps careful track, and those that do are under no obligation to tell us.
There is no shame in taking advantage of this advantage. And need-aware schools need not become less diverse. Macalaster has published some data showing that its demographics did not change much when it moved from need-blind admissions to need-aware.
Much depends on whether a school decides to use incremental revenue from full-pay families to cover grants for less affluent ones or to pay for fancy cafeteria food instead. Any family concerned about whether need-aware schools have a diversity problem should just ask. Demographic data is reported in each school’s Common Data Set form, which is easily found via an internet search.
You could also ask specifically about the percentage of undergraduates who are getting Pell Grants and request other data on other commitments to low-income and minority students. Case Western’s number of underrepresented students has gone up in the two years since it moved to a need-aware policy.
Any discussion about need-aware schools and full-pay families starts to get muddy, however, when you talk about merit aid. It is grant money — a discount off the full price, really — that has no relation to a family’s ability to pay.
At the more selective schools that offer merit aid, a smaller percentage of students get it. Those schools are often trying to buy the best applicants away from even more selective institutions to try to strengthen the quality of the undergraduate population.
At less selective schools, where the list price may start out much lower than the $75,000 all-in price that the most expensive schools charge per year, nearly everyone may get a merit aid trophy. The hope is that the more affluent families will feel great about a $20,000 discount while the school nets a student who is still paying more than most other attendees.
And yes, I’m gleefully dodging (for now) the question of whether any of the undergraduate institutions I name-checked above are worth $300,000 or are $200,000 better than your flagship state university. Still, to state what should be obvious but doesn’t seem to be anymore: Picking and paying for a school based solely on prestige is a pretty good way to increase your odds of having a pretty bad four years — or maybe more than four, if you hate it and drop out or flunk out or transfer.
So what should you do with this information? If you are affluent and have or are preparing to have children, save as much as you reasonably can in hopes that money is no object come college time. Grandparents: Help now if you can, with a 529 college savings account.
And if you’re a high school senior lucky enough to have won this genetic and demographic lottery yourself and thus improved your admissions odds some, keep this in mind: You may have earned the grades and the scores to put you in the running, but you are also the beneficiary of enormous, unearned economic privilege.
Go ahead and use it, sure. But please, pay it forward and backward to people who have less than you, whenever you are able.
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