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Are Financially Needy Students Less Likely to Get Into College?

Apr 22, 2013 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

With dramatic funding cuts to public colleges—and private college endowments suffering as well—do you have a better chance of getting into college if you come from a wealthy family?

It’s not unusual for wealthy families to try to persuade admissions officers by demonstrating their willingness to donate to the school—or pay the full price tag on tuition.

But these kinds of tactics are less effective than you might think.

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The truth is that colleges are motivated by more than money. For instance, many colleges are driven to rank high in nationwide college ranking systems that evaluate schools based on their selectivity, the diversity of the student body, and SAT score averages for entering freshmen, among other things. These rankings can make a big difference in the quality of professors a school can attract, the number of student applicants it receives, and its prestige in the marketplace. Often, colleges will admit students with an eye to boosting those rankings—and compared with that benefit, a single family’s tuition payment is small potatoes.

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In addition, if you can’t afford the full cost of tuition—and many students and their families can’t—the school will get its money anyway. It will get it in the form of government and private student loans, grants, work-study payments, and other things—in addition to your family’s expected contribution. Even non-wealthy families bring in high tuition payments in the form of grants and loans.

That doesn’t mean that colleges aren’t starting to take wealth into account in these economic conditions, however. For example, out-of-state students applying to state universities pay higher tuition than in-state students—and some state schools use merit aid and other incentives to attract out-of-state applicants.

And some colleges that are outwardly committed to staying needs-blind—admitting students regardless of income or economic background—are devising ways to admit more students who pay full tuition without challenging that “needs-blind” label. These tactics include admitting students from waiting and transfer lists—whose applicants are not usually considered under need-blind conditions, as well as admitting more international students who do not qualify for federal aid.

Some colleges have started raising the amount of federal work study money they receive or reducing budgets for needs-based grants and awards given at the school level. And while many colleges try to stay need-blind at first, it is not unusual for schools to start paying more attention to family and student income towards the end of the admissions period, when the financial aid budget has been exhausted.

In addition, some colleges have begun giving out more merit aid—grants provided to students with outstanding academic records and other non-needs qualifications. The merit aid can be used to attract wealthier students with the means to pay the rest of the tuition bill on their own.

Early decision students can also boost a college’s number of non-need-blind admissions without changing their need-blind status. Early-decision acceptance requires a student to attend the school that accepts them—without negotiating a financial aid package. Students on early-decision wait lists tend to be wealthier and willing to pay more, as they have a passion for the school.

So do you have a better chance of getting into college if you don’t fill out a financial aid application? It’s difficult to say. In most cases, it’s unlikely that filling out an application will hurt your chances of going to a specific college—unless you’re already a borderline candidate. If that’s the case, it’s possible admissions counselors at some traditional and accredited online schools might choose another equally-borderline candidate over you if that candidate comes from a wealthy background.



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