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College admissions in hard economic times

How does financial need affect college admissions?

College admissions nationwide have risen this year, prompting a record number of applications at many institutions, including the University. The influx of applicants can make it difficult for universities to provide financial aid to admitted students, and many have been altering their admissions policies and the ways that they evaluate applicants' financial need. Doing so may provide economic benefits, but could be detrimental for otherwise qualified students who may have problems paying for their education.

Effects of the economy\nThe national economic climate has influenced universities' decisions to alter their consideration of financial aid in their admissions policies.

"The economic downturn has squeezed college financial aid budgets nationwide," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb.com and Finaid.com. "The number of FAFSAs submitted has increased by about a third over the past three years."

Families are becoming more and more conscious about their out-of-pocket costs for higher education. The bottom line cost of college, Kantrowitz said, is the difference between the cost of attendance and grants or scholarships.

Kantrowitz added that the disparity between the rise in cost and the lack of need-based aid is causing moderate- to low-income families to shift their enrollment choices. Many are opting out of applying to four-year colleges, finding education at smaller, two-year institutions.

"At a time when President Obama has been calling for increases in the percentage of the U.S. population with bachelor's degrees, the failure of need-based programs to keep pace with increases in college costs will result in a decline in bachelor's degree attainment among low- and moderate-income families," he said.

Kantrowitz also predicts turbulence in the coming years as stimulus money comes to an end and state support of higher education begins to decline.

"This will result in above-average tuition inflation at public colleges this fall, with many colleges increasing tuition at double-digit rates," he said.

Colleges with generous endowments are continuing to operate with strict need-blind admissions policies.

"We have long been in the fortunate position of admitting students without regard to their ability to pay," said Harvard Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath. "[This] policy applies to international students and anyone admitted to the College, from the waiting list or otherwise."

McGrath emphasized that need-blind admissions allows Harvard to enrich its student body.

"The policy helps Harvard to enroll the most talented students we can find because money is not a factor."

National trend\nKantrowitz said he has noticed a slight shift toward need-aware admissions policies. He noted that using policies that consider the financial status of waitlisted and international students is becoming more common.

He said many families are confused about the bottom-line cost of attending college and may enroll in colleges that they cannot afford. One chief reason, Kantrowitz said, is the lack of clarity put forth by many colleges from the beginning of the financial aid process.

"About a third of colleges don't include the cost of attendance on the financial aid award letter, and of those that do, only about two-fifths provide a detailed breakdown of costs," he said. "The financial aid award letter needs to include enough information that families can make an informed decision about where to enroll."

Kantrowitz believes that it would be most beneficial to find a middle-ground approach to considering a student's financial aid.

"It does no good for a college to grant a student admission but to deny them the financial aid they need to afford the college costs," he said. "Such an admit-deny situation leads to students dropping out of college."

To remedy the "admit-deny" dilemma, he said the best course of action may be to maintain a need-blind admissions policy, but to present families and prospective students with clear information on the costs of college and financial aid opportunities.

Need-aware admission\nMore and more universities, especially private institutions, are adopting a need-aware admissions policy for the admittance of students, specifically international applicants and those on the waitlist. This approach involves considering a student's financial need when making admissions decisions.

Colby College in Maine, for example, has adopted a more need-aware policy in light of the recession.

Lucia Whittelsey, director of financial aid at Colby, reported that the college begins the admissions process on a need-blind basis, much like most other universities. The most qualified students are admitted and their financial need is taken into account according to the school's grant budget.

Once the college's funds begin to diminish, however, the protocol changes regarding qualified students who are being considered for admission.

"If we think we are going to be over budget substantially, students may move from the 'tentative admit' list to the waitlist," Whittelsey said.

She emphasized that the school is committed to aiding all admitted students who require financial aid.

Colby's choice to adopt a need-aware admissions policy was influenced largely by financial difficulties, Whittelsey said. To follow a strict need-blind policy, she said the college's budget for providing grants would need to increase from $24 million to about $32 million per year.

"We just don't have that kind of money," she said.

Whittelsey believes, however, that the need-aware policy is an improvement from the school's previous procedure, which limited students' experiences at Colby by placing them under immense financial pressures.

She described the process as "admit-deny" because students were admitted on a need-blind basis without consideration for their economic need. Financial aid was given on a rolling basis, and inevitably would run dry before all students had been offered aid. For this reason, many students were admitted into Colby but denied the necessary financial support that they required.

"It was a very painful process," Whittlesey said. "Parents and students were taking on mountains of debt."

Other schools considering financial need for waitlisted and international students include Tufts University, Washington University in St. Louis and Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

In 1993, Carleton College administrators decided to adopt a need-aware admissions policy to control expenditures after significantly exceeding its financial aid budget.\n"After a year of discussion among the faculty and the college community, Carleton took a step away from being totally need-blind," said Rodney Oto, associate dean of admissions and director of Student Financial Services.

Oto noted that the conscious decision to switch to what he calls a "need-sensitive" system was made to benefit admitted students who require aid. Carleton had established a rule that need-aware decisions would affect only up to 15 percent of the entering class.

"I should note that we could have decided to be need-blind and not met students' needs, but felt that was not ethical given our high cost," he said. "We believe that by being need-sensitive for a small part of the class, we are still able to fully meet the need of enrolling students and not have them leave with unmanageable loans."

Oto emphasized that most of Carleton's students are admitted need-blind. Financial aid meets the students' full need, mostly through loans. It was a difficult but important decision, he said, to become more need-sensitive to provide more efficiently for those students admitted to Carleton.

"We believe being need-sensitive with our admissions decisions is preferable, and more ethical, than admitting students knowing that we will not be able to help with our $52,000 comprehensive cost and giving them false hope that Carleton can be attainable," Oto said.

Likewise, Smith College in Northampton, Mass. adopted a need-aware policy for students on the waitlist and international students in 1992. The decision was made to increase the amount of aid given to students at Smith, said Karen Kristof, senior associate director of admissions.

"This policy allows us to manage the financial aid budget in a careful way and ensure that we meet the full demonstrated financial need of all admitted students," she said.\nShe also reported that Smith College makes financial aid consideration for students on the waitlist, so being deferred may not end in denial for all students.

"We might make a need-aware admission decision, place a student on the waitlist, and then have room and financial aid for her later," she said.

Financial aid at the University\nThe University practices a strict need-blind admissions policy for all domestic students, both Virginia residents and out-of-state, said Dean of Admissions Greg Roberts.\n"A student's financial aid is not considered, or even known by the reader, when making admission decisions," he said. "In other words, a student is not disadvantaged if he or she needs financial aid in order to attend the University."

Roberts said he believes most universities and colleges are considering the need-aware admissions policy because they cannot afford to be need-blind. He added that he is thankful that the University's endowment and financial budget allow need-blind admission for domestic students.

The University's admissions process is not entirely need-blind, however. International students are considered on a need-aware basis.

Roberts emphasized that the University will not consider admitting more out-of-state or international students, whose tuition is higher, to increase finances.

"We have no intention of altering our balance of in- and out-of-state students, regardless of the state of the economy," he said.

Yvonne Hubbard, the University's director of Student Financial Services, said she does not stand in favor need-aware policies.

"I feel blessed to work at an institution that admits students based on their abilities and the expectation of success," Hubbard said.

Hubbard detailed the manner in which admissions and financial aid processes work as separate entities when considering an applicant's credentials and awards.

"There is a firewall between admissions and financial aid," she said. "Admissions does not take financial ability to pay into consideration, and financial aid, which is need-based here at U.Va., does not take academic information into consideration when awarding aid."

Hubbard points to the Board of Visitors' resolution that established AccessUVa, the University's financial aid service, which states the University's goals concerning financial service to its students.

According to the resolution, the University should advance the goals of Thomas Jefferson through need-blind admissions and need-based aid for all admitted students to ensure that student financial circumstances do not interfere with education.

"The University seeks to attract, enroll and graduate a student body with socioeconomic diversity," it reads.

Taking the steps\nEconomic conditions have altered the manner in which certain students may or may not be admitted to many institutions of higher learning this year. While many colleges are increasing their financial aid budgets, they are also taking steps to ensure that the funds are applied to help admitted students in the best way possible. Financially needy students may suffer as a result, at least until conditions improve.


Published March 1, 2011 in Focus

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