Kevin Carey’s piece this week in Slate, debunking the idea of merit-based financial aid, is well worth the read. With both kids in college as of this fall, I’ll amplify his argument by sharing what I’ve learned directly about the aid process.
When The Boy applied to colleges several years ago, The Wife and I had been out of that system since we were students. I had paid enough attention over the years to know the differences among “need-blind,” “need-aware,” and “flat-out mercenary” uses of institutional aid, and I had learned the hard way as a student that applying “early decision” leaves you more or less at the mercy of one institution. But decades had passed since it was relevant.
TB initially had his heart set on the University of Michigan, to which we have family ties. (Both of my parents went there; it’s where they met.) For context, TB had a terrific record in high school, with strong grades in an IB program, varsity letters in track and cross-country, and a bunch of extracurriculars. He also had very strong SAT scores. We toured a bunch of places, he applied to several (I think it was eight), and we waited.
He was elated when he received the acceptance to Michigan. He was crushed a few weeks later when we got the financial aid offer, if you want to call it that. It was either insulting or darkly comical, depending on your preference. It was a non-starter. That was not a fun conversation. I’ll admit that I was blindsided; it didn’t occur to me that they’d extend an offer of admission contingent on our willingness to live in a tent. That is not how a public institution should behave, even out-of-state. But it did. I even filed an appeal, which was rejected outright. Apparently, his role would have been “cash cow.” No, thanks.
That confirmed my distrust of early decision. Had he been accepted through early decision and received that offer, we would have been in a rough spot.
So we turned to the others. I taught him how to read financial aid letters, which, in retrospect, I wish I had done earlier. I told him to ignore every form of “aid” other than grants. Loans have to be paid back, and work-study is pay for part-time work. Grants count; the rest is just cost-shifting. Eventually, the University of Virginia came through with an offer that, while challenging, made much more sense. He went, and has been happy with his choice. Michigan has its charms, but it’s not the only game in town.
Chastened by the experience, when it came time for The Girl to start looking, I reminded her of TB’s experience with Michigan and advised against picking a “dream” school. That worked about as well as parental advice to teenagers usually does; she decided that she belonged at [Snooty U]. We toured a bunch of colleges, several of which overlapped with TB’s list. The tours were helpful in separating colleges that looked similar on paper. An early second choice fell far down her list when we saw it; instead of feeling homey or intimate, it felt dead. A couple of dark horse contenders fared much better in person, particularly the U of Pittsburgh and the U of Maryland.
[Snooty U] rejected her, in what we later learned was its single most selective year ever. She took it surprisingly well. It wound up being her only rejection. Her academic record and test scores were even stronger than TB’s, as were her extracurriculars, though she didn’t have a sport.
As beleaguered New Jersey parents could guess, the only school she ruled out entirely was Rutgers. It wasn’t really about Rutgers; she just had her heart set on getting out of New Jersey. Losing the one shot at in-state tuition stung a little – not gonna lie – but I recognized the impulse. When I was looking at colleges, back when the earth’s crust was still cooling, I refused to consider anything within a few hours of home. She came by it honestly.
One contender – I won’t name names, as a professional courtesy – apparently modeled its financial aid process on Kafka. It asked me to submit the same documentation four separate times. On the fourth attempt, I actually wrote in the body of the email that “this is the fourth, and final, time that I will submit this form.” Whether that lit a fire under them or they just got tired of it, they finally came through with an offer, but it wasn’t enough to sway the decision. I was relieved. If they were that obstructionist when they were trying to recruit, I could only imagine how maddening they would be once she was committed. That was the same school at which an admissions rep told everyone at a well-attended information session that “test-optional” meant that they should only submit scores if they were above a number that he actually named. It’s a respected school with real appeal, but those were some ugly unforced errors. By contrast, the U of Pittsburgh’s outreach was consistently excellent. I have to give kudos.
The eventual winner, the U of Maryland, took a different approach from several others. The others had sticker prices of $70-80k, from which they offered discounts/scholarships. Having a high sticker price enabled impressive-sounding numbers for scholarships, even while leaving a high price at the end. Maryland’s sticker price was lower, so its discount was smaller. Luckily, the earlier coaching – only look at the number that results from subtracting grants from the sticker price – paid off; although Maryland’s discount was smaller than most, it was from a lower number, so the total was competitive. (I won’t say “reasonable,” because none of the out-of-state ones were reasonable. But it was competitive.) It also indicated that the discount would renew annually as long as her gpa is solid. She starts there in just a few weeks.
Having been through the process twice in the last few years, I can attest that Carey’s description of “merit” aid as something closer to airline pricing is correct. As difficult as it is to convey to a teenager who has spent years working hard to be an appealing applicant, at some point, it’s not really about you. It’s about whether a given school has too many English majors, or too few men, or is trying to build a new program in Hypothetical Studies. Therefore, applicants should reciprocate. Don’t pin everything on one school. Apply to several, and don’t be afraid to comparison-shop. That’s what they’re doing to you; failing to respond in kind is unilateral disarmament. Treating a transaction transactionally makes sense. If a given school makes a ridiculous offer, you need to be able to reject it. Otherwise, they’ll only get more ridiculous over time.
At a really basic level, of course, having options like these is a genuine privilege. That message doesn’t always land as cleanly as it should, but it’s true. Just having the option to go out of state is unusual. Yes, TB and TG are smart, hardworking, and generally wonderful. They’re also lucky. Those can both be true at the same time. Their merit, as real as it is, rests on the economic and social capital to be able to look widely. To their credit, they seem to know that. In that sense, at least, the search process was profoundly educational.