Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How Badly Do They Want Me?

For those of you who may have missed the Education Life section in last Sunday’s New York Times, an article written by Laura Pappano titled The Office: Behind closed doors as aid officers decide just how much they want you to say yes, describes Boston University’s approach to awarding money. This is one of the more transparent articles I have seen in terms of shedding light on how aid dollars play into the enrollment management process. The executive director of BU’s aid office makes no apologies for the underlying messages that these award packages send: If you don’t get the financial aid you need, especially if you have been “gapped,” the school is telling you that it likes you enough to admit you, but you are not its top choice. If you read my prior post, you know that colleges use financial aid to entice students whom they want to attend; that is the unspoken truth.

So what is the best strategy for students? Devote the time when developing the college list in the spring of junior year to explore schools that will view you as a highly desirable candidate and colleges at which your special talents will be valued. There is no problem going for the reach school, but just be aware that if financial aid is an issue, being an “on-the-bubble” candidate may not only affect your award package, but might also impact your chance of admission.

While several colleges still claim to be need-blind, some are publicly moving away from that policy. Earlier this month, Tufts University announced that it had abandoned its need-blind policy for the last 850 applicants, or roughly 5% of the applications yet to be read. Their explanation was that the money just ran out. Message here: students requiring financial aid need to submit their applications early and not wait for the December 31 deadline, or whatever date it might be, in order to receive priority consideration for money!

Will we see more colleges follow the lead of Tufts over the next few years? Let’s not forget that colleges are businesses too. They have budgets to balance, which means that maximizing revenues and controlling expenses, especially in economically lean years, need to be a primary objective. Absent a quick rebound in the economy, which is not looking likely, do not be surprised to see other schools abandon the need-blind policy in the coming years. Some will continue to practice “need-aware,” which gets back to the point that money and candidate desirability are, in practice, not treated separately in the college admission process. Many people are skeptical that there are any schools today that can honestly state that they still maintain a Chinese Wall between admission and the financial aid office, regardless of the stated policy.

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