Sunday, December 9, 2012

Need-Blind, Need-Aware and College Admissions

Does financial need factor into the college admission decision and if so, how does it affect applicants and to what extent?  Adding to the anxiety about college admissions is the question about how to handle and interpret application questions on financial aid.  Parents, especially those who are not sure whether they will qualify for assistance, often ask whether checking “yes” to the need-based aid question might negatively impact a student’s chance for acceptance. 

Like many questions related to college admission, the answer is rarely so straightforward. Students, of course, want to maximize the probability of admission without jeopardizing their opportunity to receive financial aid for college.  Some schools profess to be need-blind, meaning that they do not consider ability to pay in the admission decision.  That may sound like good news; however, it does not necessarily mean that the college will provide adequate financial aid to enable the student to attend once admitted.  New York University, a need-blind university, does not claim to meet demonstrated need and generally comes up short by more than 30% of the cost.  Admitted students are counseled by admissions, only after acceptance, that attending the university might not be a sound decision if it requires excessive borrowing.  

Certain need-sensitive colleges take a different approach to college admission, choosing to give more aid to fewer students rather than put affordability out of reach for many. Several of the more selective need-sensitive colleges, in fact, admit most though not all students without regard to their ability to pay.  When it comes down to the final 2-20% of the admission decisions (depending on the college), ability to pay becomes the deciding factor.   Is this more palatable than offering a spot in the class without providing the means to pay for it? Wesleyan University believes so, yet met with protests from students, parents and alumni when it switched from a need-blind to need-aware or need-sensitive policy this past May, stating that it would now consider ability to pay when filling the last 10% or so of the class.  The college chose to alter its admission approach so that it would still be able to meet the demonstrated need of every admitted student. A list of the small group of Colleges-that-claim-to-meet-full-financial-need was published by U.S. News & World Report earlier this year.

Whether a college is need-blind or need-aware, families should have an understanding about what they can afford to pay and what amount of borrowing is manageable, even before the applications are submitted. The unfortunate truth is that need is an unavoidable topic in most college admission offices. Colleges do not have unlimited financial aid budgets and most have to factor this into the equation. You can decide to try to game the system and avoid checking the will you apply for need-based financial aid? box, but if you honestly do not have the ability to pay, you are not doing yourself or your child a favor.  That being said, it is a good idea to understand the likelihood of your receiving aid as you work through the process.

Here are some guidelines on how to think about the application financial aid question to help you evaluate its potential impact on the admission decision for your child:

-          Is the school in question a reach, mid-range or likely for your child? If he or she is not at the high end or at least in the upper half of the admitted student range in terms of academic performance or some other compelling factor, having a financial need probably works against him/her in the admission process.  A student with money and the same academic qualifications has a better chance of being admitted. 
-          The most selective colleges reserve their financial aid for qualified students with demonstrated need rather than those with the best academic record.  At places where admission is less selective, merit tends to rule.  Many colleges use financial aid as the carrot to lure the most desirable students, whether they need financial assistance or not. In search of ever-improving rankings, colleges essentially pay to attract the high performers. 
-          More schools “gap” than do not; they expect that you will fill the balance of your need with student or parent loans.  So even if your Expected Family Contribution or EFC is less than the cost of attendance, don’t just assume that the college will make up the difference with a grant.  One major caveat: some colleges disingenuously qualify loans as financial aid; since loans must be paid back, be advised to distinguish them from grant money which is a gift.  If it is not clear whether a financial aid “award” includes borrowed money, ask.    

The best way to find out how need factors into the admission decision at a particular college, if in doubt, is to pick up the phone and call the school.  Keep in mind, however, that a need-blind policy will not necessarily work in your favor if tuition is high and the financial aid policy is to gap.  Net price calculators which can be found on every college’s website are another tool at your disposal to estimate your actual out-of-pocket cost per year.  You can also use College Navigator, a Department of Education site, to get a sense for what families in your income range typically pay at a given college.   With these tools, you will be better informed before checking the financial need box. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

Cycling My Way through a Tour of Colleges

The lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are officially here, which for me means the three “Cs:” colleges, cycling and camaraderie. The beginning of summer has become my time to venture to a new region of the country or revisit a familiar one to tour colleges by bike.  I look forward to what has become an annual journey of discovery with my two-wheeler colleagues, an energetic group of school counselors and independent consultants who share a sense of humor and our love for cycling and colleges.  This year our trip takes us to western Michigan, Indiana and Chicago.  The colleges on our list comprise an eclectic group of household names and lesser known gems: Calvin College, Hope College, Kalamazoo College, University of Notre Dame, Valparaiso University and Northwestern. And if time allows before our tour officially begins, I will fit in two more Chicago schools, regretfully by means of public transportation!  In all, we will cover 255 miles in five days.  We are not a wimpy group; we transport our own gear in panniers and hope to get some rest after long days of cycling and college touring, retiring most nights in campus dorms on extra-long, well-worn twin mattresses.
I should mention that barely nine months ago I toured half of the colleges on my upcoming trip.  The campuses were teeming with students and showing off the colors of their brilliant autumn splendor.   Yet “been there, done that” was no excuse to take a pass on this year’s bike trip. It’s not just about my love for cycling and the camaraderie of being with summer biking pals.  I relish the opportunity to revisit, even the campuses I have walked before.  The schools, no doubt, will be more tranquil in July than during the school year, and I expect that they will show very differently under the haze and humidity of early July.  No college can be captured in just a few snapshots; nor should that be the sum total of my experience on a particular campus.
The first trip to a college is an opportunity to get a feel for the landscape.  I want to see the big picture:  the essence of the academic experience, the social life, the character of the student body and the feel for the surrounding community.  A return trip allows me to delve deeper.  Every time I see a campus, I discover something new, an unusual major I had overlooked before or some specific aspect of the admission process that may make a difference for a particular student.  Building upon what I already know reinforces my understanding of what makes a college special and who would thrive in that environment. 
I sometimes stop to ponder what I love so much about what I do.  Today I would state my job description this way:  my role is about discovery.  Whether it is getting into the mind and soul of each student or uncovering the unique qualities of a particular college, I am challenged to find matches that will enrich a young person’s life over the long term.  Next week I will have another opportunity to pursue that mission:  on a bike!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Does That Price for This College Make Sense?

The cost of college today has put affordability truly out of reach for most Americans, including many who are comfortably middle class.  I am not stating anything that anyone who is currently putting children through college hasn’t realized.  While higher education has always come at a cost, it has reached a price point that now exceeds the pain threshold for most Americans.  As President Obama, Congress and colleges wrangle over how to fix the problem of runaway tuition increases, I sadly am of the opinion that the situation has no satisfactory solution that doesn’t involve drastically changing the delivery of higher education in this country. But that is a subject for another day.  Right now I am consumed by the decisions families make with respect to cost and choosing a college.  

The question that has been weighing on my mind is how much is too much to pay for college, specifically for schools that heavily discount tuition.  Anyone who follows the news about rising college costs probably is familiar with the difference between the “sticker price” (what a college publishes as its total cost) and “net price” (what its students actually pay, on average).  In recent year, most colleges have made a practice of offering merit aid to students they wish to lure away from more selective schools.  Colleges do that by “discounting” the sticker price so that students feel like they are getting a real deal…but are they?  The discounting of tuition, in fact, is one of the main drivers of higher prices.  Colleges are able to offer select students sizable discounts by charging everybody else more.  So should you pay full price for a college that uses your tuition dollars to subsidize other students?  

The question has no simple answer.  What makes sense for one student and family may be impractical for another.  My goal here is to provide a framework for families wrestling with this question as they help their children make the all-important decision about where to attend college.  

Have the family discussion and a joint understanding about affordability before the applications go out and the acceptances come in.  It is okay to apply to the dream college, but be clear with your son or daughter about what kind of financial aid package, either need or merit-based, will make it feasible to attend.  Setting expectations early may mean avoiding future heartache.

Recognize that loans may make it possible to attend the college of choice today, but that excessive borrowing will feel like an albatross around the neck once graduation has passed and the loan payments come due. Borrowing a reasonable amount to pay for college makes sense, but knowing what is affordable requires planning and forward thinking.  How much will the student and/or parents probably have to borrow over four years?  What will be the approximate size of the future graduate's monthly payments and how long will it take to pay off the loans?  Given a student’s career plans, what will he or she likely earn, and will that be sufficient to comfortably meet debt payments while still covering other living expenses?  A good rule of thumb is to keep debt payments at or below 8% of gross income.  Calculators such as those available on the website enable one to project future debt payments, based on expected borrowing and interest rates. The calculators will also help you determine what a person should earn in order to comfortably pay back a given balance in student loans. If you are looking for a way to estimate average salaries in a specific field by region, you might want to check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics site:

Think it through before you pay the sticker price at a college that heavily discounts tuition. It is important to find out what percentage of students receives some type of merit aid and the amount of the average award.  If a school discounts tuition for a significant number of students and you are not one of them, you are probably overpaying and subsidizing someone else’s child who has better grades and test scores.  When is it okay to do this?  1) If it’s the dream school and you can afford it without borrowing, 2) if the student wants to pursue a unique major or program for which the college is renowned, 3) when the college offers some merit aid, but most students pay full fare (e.g., the “subsidizing of other students is not significant) and 4) in cases where other less expensive options truly do not meet the academic needs of the student.

Have your child include schools on the college list that that will likely offer tuition discounts based on his or her test scores and GPA.  For the most part, you can figure out which colleges these are.  Are the test scores and GPA at the high end of the school’s range?  In all likelihood, the college will offer some discount as an incentive to entice your student to attend.
Weigh the emotional against the practical.  Does it make sense for the middle income family that receives no need-based aid to choose the Ivy League or highly selective university over the state school option?  Given the emotions wrapped up in these types of choices, I find it difficult to advise others on the right and logical decision.   Choosing the highly selective, name brand college may indeed change the student’s life, but at a high cost if excessive borrowing is involved.  This is especially true if a student has plans to go on to graduate school.  I know.  It’s hard to turn down Harvard or Yale, nor am I saying that you should.  However, graduating debt-free or with limited loans is anything but over-rated.  Do well as an undergraduate anywhere and you can spend the bigger bucks on graduate school.  

Deciding what a college education is worth is a complex analysis, yet unlike an integral calculus problem, there is no single right answer.  My hope is that having a framework to evaluate this decision and a list of questions to ponder will help each family come to the answer that is appropriate for them.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Study in Ireland - A Hundred Thousand Welcomes!

Céad míle fáilte romhat! A hundred thousand welcomes to you! Our group of 21 college counselors touring the seven Irish universities discovered the sincerity of this welcome and the true meaning of Irish hospitality. We were on a mission in early March to learn all that we could about higher education in Ireland. After a week visiting the seven campuses, I understand the appeal of studying in this country so rich in culture, history, scholarship and generosity.

The charm and splendor of the universities mirrors the radiance of the Irish people. Even in early March, each campus showed well, flowers in bloom and several sporting brilliant shamrock green quads…three weeks before the official advent of spring! However, my objective was to leave Ireland not only with the digital and mental pictures, but with a deeper appreciation for its approach to higher education, the essential differences between a U.S. and an Irish university experience, and an understanding of the mindset of the American student who decides to venture to the Emerald Isle to live and study.

Our journey began on the east coast in Dublin, where we spent two days touring Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and Dublin City University. We discovered, among other things, how much better Guinness tastes on the other side of the pond and the sheer beauty of traditional Irish music when performed by a cappella voices in perfect harmony. The next stop was National University of Ireland Maynooth, located in the eponymous medieval town just 30 minutes west of Dublin. Spending the night in a monastery was a personal first, only to be topped by a photo opportunity at dinner with members of the Irish national rugby team! After a three hour drive the next morning we reached the west coast and the picturesque city of Galway, home to the National University of Ireland Galway and a center for theatre and art. On our final two days we headed southeast to the University of Limerick and then on to the University College Cork before returning to Dublin. Both universities regaled us with traditional Irish music and dance performed by students in their acclaimed music programs. If you are ever in Cork, take a page from the Ireland itinerary of Queen Elizabeth II and be sure to savor the tastes, smells and bustle of the English Market!

Getting the flavor for life in and around the university locales was an integral part of our education. Yet most of our time was spent on the campuses, learning about the literally hundreds of subjects offered, the undergraduate entry programs in disciplines that are exclusively graduate level at home such as medicine, law, dentistry and veterinary medicine, Co-op programs similar to those in the U.S., the difference between a society (student club) and a club (a sport), the student union (an organization, not a place!), tutorials (the Irish equivalent of a U.S. university lecture review session), joint honours degrees (a double major), study abroad through the Erasmus programme (a student exchange program), and a whole host of other features, some of which needed to be translated or explained for American educators.

Much of what we heard from faculty, staff and students about the appeal of studying in Ireland came as no surprise. Americans students seek the international experience and global perspective that living in the gateway to Europe offers; yet they know they will still have the familiarity of hearing and speaking their native English. It’s a cultural immersion that feels a little less foreign. Yet there are some significant differences in the educational experience in Ireland that attracts a special type of international student.

Studying in an Irish university is more about depth than breadth. The emphasis on pursuing one or two subjects rather than exploring a true liberal arts curriculum means that students graduate with a genuine expertise in their fields. (University College Dublin offers a program that is an exception, having developed a Liberal Art & Sciences Program modeled after U.S. higher education which allows students to explore various disciplines before declaring a major.) The more common Irish approach is focused, but not narrow. In fact, many programs are inter-disciplinary. A course (major) in European Studies will delve into the history, philosophy, arts and sciences, religion, psychology and linguistics of the region, thereby providing an education that can, indeed, look very much like one pursued at a U.S. liberal arts college.

Those from the United States who do choose to study in Ireland might be surprised by the degree of responsibility placed on students to budget their time and self-pace their studies. One or two exams during the year is the norm rather than continual assessment throughout the semester, as is common in the U.S. Professors do not regularly provide progress feedback in the form of tests or papers. Yet students are not left to fend for themselves. Irish universities provide dedicated support for international students to ensure that they succeed academically and adjust to their new social and cultural environment.

Attending a university in Ireland means being part of a larger community. The notion of town-gown is not part of the mindset in Ireland; students easily mingle with residents and feel very welcome as part of the local community. The warmth, hospitality and welcome of the Irish people is unmatched. Go into an Irish pub or shop and don’t be surprised if you are drawn into a conversation.

“School spirit” as we know it in the U.S. is a bit of a foreign concept on campuses in Ireland. Instead, students connect and feel part of the university by joining societies and clubs or team sports, many of which are competitive. Involvement in these cultural, academic, social and athletic organizations is viewed as an important dimension to the university experience, and furthers a mission to educate the whole person. On Irish campuses, students rule. All societies and clubs are student organized and run. Every university has a union comprised of student-elected representatives who take a year off from their studies to oversee many aspects of university life.

Those who choose to attend an Irish university know they will have the best of both worlds: a university campus endowed with state-of-the-art academic, research and athletic facilities which is either located in or within a short distance from a major city, yet easily accessible to the magnificent countryside for which Ireland is well renowned.

I returned from my visit to Ireland convinced that self-directed and motivated American students willing to think broadly about higher education options would do very well to consider any of the seven Irish universities for a degree program that’s highly regarded worldwide and a great value. I would be remiss if I made no mention of the cost. Though tuition and fees vary by program of study, the cost of attendance on average is the U.S. dollar equivalent of about $30,000 per year, a bargain when compared to private colleges and even some public options in the U.S.

For the adventurous, directed student seeking an international and cultural experience that cannot be replicated in the U.S., consider Ireland. Céad míle fáilte romhat!