Colleges can avoid closing the door on financial aid knowledge

This month, dozens of applicants to Muhlenberg and Whitman colleges received offers of admission. Perhaps they were a pleasant surprise for students who had slept through their freshman year.

But what shouldn’t come as a surprise to most is the price schools will ask them to pay – or the discounts available, even for wealthy families.

That’s because Muhlenberg and Whitman are at the forefront of a movement toward transparency about the price of college and the process for lowering it. Many others, like Northeastern University, lag behind by design. Others don’t seem to have given much thought to the need for initial clarity.

It’s a problem.

“When the variable of finance is put on edge, it’s not transparent, and it’s really frustrating,” said Adam Miller, Whitman’s acting vice president for admissions and financial aid. “And that can lead to some really terrible outcomes where families have excruciating conversations where a student has fallen in love with college and it won’t be financially affordable.”

Schools have two main ways of determining any discount you might get on the price. The first, need-based financial aid, is a process by which the federal government and the schools themselves assess your income — and some of your assets — to determine what they think you should be able to afford. pay, even if their expectations are not. does not match yours. The second, merit aid, is much less predictable and describes everything from highly competitive scholarships to discounts a school offers everyone.

If you can’t get real clarity on either in advance, you shop around and apply in the dark. And a sad truth underscores the need for clearer explanations: Only a small number of schools are wealthy enough to be able to accept all the students they want and then give them all enough subsidies to make attendance affordable.

Others face difficult choices. Some schools admit all the students they want regardless of their ability to pay — a process called blind admissions — but don’t give them all enough discounts to make it affordable.

Others target their aid budget to a smaller group and reject some otherwise worthy applicants because their needs will be too great. This process is commonly known as need awareness. Some need-conscious schools fully meet the needs of everyone they accept, while many others do not.

Few colleges will explain it to you in plain English or explain their own process in detail. But Muhlenberg, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, stands out with a little-known, must-read essay called “The real deal on financial aidon its website. The school has decided that there is a virtue in just telling it like it is.

“Money has become a means of enrolling the particular students an institution wants most,” Muhlenberg’s essay explains. “This phenomenon is called ‘preferential packaging’.”

The essay points to an unfortunate consequence: “Some students closer to the bottom of the admitted student group are ‘passed away’, meaning they receive financial aid, but it does not meet all of their needs. . »

This means that Muhlenberg (and dozens of other similar institutions) will almost certainly disappoint some of its accepted students with unaffordable quotes. Given the refreshing outspokenness of the trial, however, they shouldn’t be surprised that such an outcome is possible.

As helpful as Muhlenberg’s words are in describing how colleges list awards, other schools simply go ahead and tell applicants how their specific grades and scores might influence their discounts.

At University of Alabama, freshmen from out of state have nine (nine!) Tiers of scholarship qualification, based on test scores and grade point averages. the University of South Carolina provides average test and grade levels for its many different merit aid amounts, and Wabash College has a clear guide, too.

(All colleges must offer a net price calculator which lets you enter your financials and estimate what the school might charge you, but calculators should only be reckoned with need-based help. Oberlin College and Conservatory is an exception among the more selective schools that include merit aid in its calculator.)

Whitman, in Walla Walla, Wash., goes one step further to help prospective students weigh the costs. His guarantee of advance financial assistance invites potential applicants to request a quote by submitting academic information for merit-based aid and financial data for need-based aid. Then it comes back with a number.

Whitman might give you a bigger discount than he promises up front – once he does a closer review of your full application package – but not a smaller one. The College of Wooster in Ohio has also offers a personalized quote and a similar guarantee, as long as people submit accurate information.

For Whitman, the lack of initial price clarity was a fundamental market inefficiency he could fix. “Some colleges can benefit from a lack of financial transparency,” said Mr. Miller, Whitman’s acting vice president.

Indeed, far too many schools keep things opaque, and one actually doubled down on its retention of useful information.

In a column on early decision applicants in January, I cited Northeastern as an example of a school that made it difficult for many students to figure out what the school might ask them to pay when they make an offer. admission which is theoretically (but not really) mandatory.

Late last year, Northeastern’s site offered confusing language: “Students who fall within the 10-15% of our applicant pool are considered for competitive merit awards.”

I asked school about this useless word salad, and eventually Northeastern changed it. But he made a mistake — and then completely removed the figure. Here’s the good one, by the way: In the entering class of 2020-21, 59% of people who had no financial need got merit-based aid anyway.

Why not just say that, then? “The university is putting a lot more emphasis on needs-based aid these days,” Michael Armini, a university spokesperson, said in an email. “That’s what I want the center of our messages to be.”

So how does Northeastern think about a candidate’s needs when deciding to let them in? Are its admissions blind or need-aware?

Northeastern fully meets the needs of students from the United States who successfully enter, which is legitimate boasts of on his site. But when I asked Mr. Armini if ​​the ability to pay could play a role in accepting applications, he did not answer me.

So I did what any parent would do and contacted the admissions and financial aid offices myself – and got conflicting answers at first. This compounds Northeastern’s clarity problem: if it wants to keep vital basic information off its website, anyone answering its phones should be able to find the correct answer to the resulting questions.

It wasn’t until I received an email from a senior member of the admissions office that I was certain: Northeastern is aware of the needs. (Mr. Armini told me later that they had read the answer by him.)

“Different schools will choose to provide different levels of transparency regarding financial aid,” Armini said in an email. “The overwhelming demand for an education in the North East continues because we are the world leader in experiential learning, a model that leads to superior outcomes for our students.

But what if you appreciate not being left in the dark?

Oberlin offers a human explanation on its website of its “responsive to needs” policy. Tufts puts it all clearly in a blog post. Wesleyan does not mention being aware of needs in his “Affording Wesleyan” Web pagebut its president wrote about it elsewhere – in 2013.

Improving your messaging is quite easy. After searching for American University’s conscious explainer and not finding one, a spokesperson told me that “the website is being updated to include this information.”

It’s a reminder that colleges have a choice here, even if some make the wrong choice. Take it from the person who first alerted me to Northeastern giving me bad information: Debbie Schwartza satisfied client who is a parent of one of his undergraduate students.

“Just be more transparent,” Ms Schwartz, who leads the Pay for College 101 Facebook Group, noted. “It builds trust and confidence.”

If you’ve suffered from a lack of transparency this admissions season, it’s not too late to ask for more money. I explained how in a 2014 column and updated advice in the early months of the pandemic in 2020. Be polite and explain any change in circumstances – whether financial, negative, or academically, positive.

And if you’re dreading having to do this dance in the future, go ahead and ask for help, early on, no matter where you apply. Complete the net price calculators, then, if you need to, contact the schools you are considering and request a merit aid pre-read. Mention Whitman or Wooster by name, in case the person you’re talking to doesn’t think other schools might do something like this.

“It never hurts to ask,” said Megan Ryan, vice president of listing management at Muhlenberg, whose office will also pre-read prices upon request. “The worst-case scenario is that you’re back to exactly where you started.”