Saturday, September 25, 2010

Demonstrated Interest - Making Your Intentions Known

How important is it to let a college know that you really want to attend, beyond merely submitting your application? “Demonstrated interest” refers to any way in which a student reaches out to a college to show that the school is a top choice. Whether it is a campus visit, participation in an alumni interview, or reaching out to an admission representative, demonstrated interest is now a factor in the admission process for roughly 50% of the colleges that participated in a recent National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) study.

Why has demonstrated interest become so important in the admission process? The short answer is, blame it on the economy. With colleges feeling pressure to manage enrollment, especially during times of economic uncertainty, the better they can predict who will attend, the more successful they will be at filling the class and generating tuition dollars. Furthermore, improved enrollment forecasts can benefit a school’s rankings. Colleges that both lower their acceptance rates and increase yields (the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll) are likely to see their national rankings benefit too.

The obvious next question is, what is the best way to demonstrate interest and which schools care? Applying Early Decision, of course, is a clear indication to the school that it is your first choice. Since Early Decision is binding, the college has no doubt that your interest is genuine. Other ways to show you are serious about a school is by visiting the campus, scheduling an interview, especially if the college recommends it, and contacting the admission representative who covers your region. Seeking the answer to a question that is not readily available on the college website is a great way to initiate contact. When you visit a campus, be sure to fill out the information form in the admission office so that your visit is duly noted. Some colleges will tell you outright that your expression of interest is a factor in their admission process. Either way, it does no harm to get on the mailing list and contact your regional representative, as long as your questions are thoughtful and not excessive...never stalk!

However, not all colleges and universities consider demonstrated interest in their admission processes. Wondering why you weren’t asked to fill out a form when you toured Yale? Not surprisingly, the most selective colleges do not factor in demonstrated interest and therefore do not record who shows up and who doesn’t. During a WSJ/Unigo webcast presentation (Unigo is the college search website that features reviews from current students), the dean of admission at Wesleyan shared that one-third of the incoming freshman class had not visited, interviewed or contacted the admission office prior to or after submitting an application. Her point: the school does not factor demonstrated interest in its admission process. Some colleges, including Duke and Stanford, will tell you outright that it makes no difference.

So how do you find out who cares and who doesn’t? It is not exactly the question you want to pose to the admission office, so play it safe, get on the mailing list and schedule that interview (on campus or with an alumna) if interviews are offered and recommended. A well posed question might win brownie points at the college that values your expression of interest. You have nothing to lose. Just don’t stalk.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Commitment to Match Financial Aid - The New Ivy League Approach

Paying for college is one of the most pressing concerns for families today, which is why I feel compelled to share ideas that may help families manage the cost. Followers of my blog have read my postings on the merit aid “arms race,” or how colleges use tuition discounting to attract the students that they especially want to enhance their class profile. However, a battle for exceptional students has now taken hold at the top tier of selective colleges: the Ivy League.

As many of you know, the eight Ivy League colleges, along with a handful of other highly selective schools, do not offer merit aid to students. Even those with mega-endowments use their financial aid resources exclusively for students who demonstrate financial need. This naturally figures; such colleges and universities have no trouble drawing top students, so there is no incentive to offer grants just to lure students away from other schools. Besides, merit aid awards run counter to the more important mission of access regardless of cost. Yet that does not mean that these toughest admit schools aren’t thinking about ways to compete with their peer institutions for students. With little fanfare, two universities, Cornell and Dartmouth, decided to go head to head with other Ivies, using financial aid for precisely that purpose. Both universities will soon match the aid packages that students are awarded by other Ivies and a few highly competitive schools too.

Back in 2007-2008, partly due to government pressure to spend their endowments on students rather than lose tax-exempt benefits, some 40 top tier schools dispensed with loans for the neediest students. Two universities with the largest endowments, Harvard and Yale, set an even higher bar in order to also benefit middle income families: At Harvard students with family incomes of less than $60,000 pay nothing, while those who make less than $180,000 have their costs capped at10% of their income. For Yale students, the income ceiling which allows students to take advantage of the 10% maximum out-of-pocket is a whopping $200,000. Cornell, having a far larger student body and much smaller endowment, is in no financial position to compete with such hefty aid packages for all of its students.

Yet not wanting to lose out on some of these gifted students, Cornell has found a way to compete without offering such generous awards across the board. Starting with the class enrolling for the fall of 2011, Cornell will match the offer of other Ivies to which the student has been accepted. Cornell has issued the same match policy for students accepted to Duke and Stanford. However, if your child happens be one of the students in this high class problem category, don’t expect Cornell to come to you. It is up to the student to approach Cornell to request the additional aid based upon the competing package.

Sure, this will affect a very limited group of students: those who are smart and lucky enough to be accepted to at least two Ivy League schools while also qualifying for financial aid. Yet the concept of competing aid policies does expand the notion of affordability of an Ivy League education to a broader universe of middle income families. The student who would choose Cornell or Dartmouth over Harvard will no longer have to factor cost or potential outstanding debt into the equation. This is a positive step forward for college affordability. But just so you don’t think I’ve completely taken leave of my senses, let me assure you that I am fully aware of the most difficult hurdle which remains: Getting in!