Early Decision and Financial Aid

If there were some predictability and consistency (and one might argue fairness and decency) in the awarding of financial aid, then there would be little problem with ED.

For those who have been in the profession more than 20 or 25 years, you can remember a time when both institutional aid and federal and state aid was determined by the data from the Financial Aid Form. Most colleges were need blind and met 100% of need. “Need” was easy to determine. There were tables that one could use which would tell you how to compute financial need and expected family contribution.

Then the feds decided to mess with a good thing. Someone thought it would be a great idea to remove housing equity from the federal formula, thus the FAFSA and the CSS Profile were born, primarily because it provided one major piece of data that the FAFSA did not: housing equity. The College Board thought it was a great idea to give individualized financial profiles to each school using their own formulas, thus no one applying to a college that required the FAFSA had any idea what level of financial aid they might expect.

Around the same time, the rise of enrollment management, in a time of a declining college applicants, arose. The worst of EM techniques was and is financial aid leveraging, an insidious process of awarding aid not on need, or even on merit, but on the demographic characteristics of the student. One time I was pretty shocked when a classified and very weak (academically) student of mine was given a $2000 merit scholarship to a relatively selective place. Then I picked up that some EM guru must have let the school know that Asian students from our area were more likely to attend with this kind of incentive. Another college routinely underfunds students, holding back money to give only to those who appeal their FA awards. One admissions dean told me how his board told him to find more full pay kids, but gave no direction on how. One college I know admits they they want to admit at least 50% of their class Early Decision (ED) and another tells legacies that this advantage will not “count” (wink, wink) if they don’t go ED.

I am certainly sympathetic to those colleges that are not well endowed who truly need to meet bottom lines that other better endowed college do not. It is certainly easier to be pious about one’s financial aid policy when the college has a multi-million or billion dollar endowment.

There is much that has been written about how ED hurts the disadvantaged, particularly minority students. I don’t know if that is true. It does seem that many colleges use ED to not only nail down full pay kids, in many cases, but also institutional priorities (their “shopping list” so to say), which clearly, with other groups like athletes and development cases/legacies, clearly includes under-represented minorities. And they seem to be funding this group competitively. But ED does advantage the wealthy at the expense of, well, uh,….me (and those like me) who cannot afford full freight but have no idea what level of financial aid I might get. Sure I can guess, but my experience is that kids in my kids’ situation get awards that vary sometimes by tens of thousands of dollars.

So what do I recommend? That colleges, in respect to financial aid, say what they do and do what they say. Make it so students and parent can easily predict how much financial aid they will get with some degree of certainty. At least a range. Then the down side of ED is gone. No longer would students need to shop around for financial aid.

I just think this whole process is too opaque for students and parents. Its pretty predictable who is in the ball park in terms of admissions, but it seems that every college wants as many applications as possible, even though, in some cases, it is just to be able to deny as many as possible. Maybe part of my feeling is coming from that miserable spring I have each year, breaking dreams by the dozen by telling kid after kid that they are not going to get into their dream school. Maybe I should take the line of the colleges and just imply that it could happen (even though I know it won’t). But my integrity prevents that. I dread that look, from both the parents and kids, when the realization happens that they have set their sights too high. I think to myself that its just not that big a deal where you go. That there are great teachers everywhere and that it really doesn’t have much effect on ones life. It has this myth of opening doors, but that’s almost always at the first job and that’s it, which most people leave in a couple of years anyway. But there is this romantic notion about college and this vicarious thing with parents that I need to respect.

What’s the point of all this. Let’s keep things in perspective. It is really necessary for colleges to be more open about admissions, but even more so, about financial aid. Stop playing games and stop using financial aid as a marketing and leveraging tool. Then we can go aobut our business and ED will no longer be seen as an evil but as a productive tool to help match kids to schools.

Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as swcollegeconsulting@gmail.com or 973-919-6798.

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